Starring: Bryce Johnson, Cole Williams, Rain Phoenix, Tony Gilroy, and Michelle Phillips
Director: Christopher Munch
Writing Credits: Christopher Munch
Distributor: TLA Releasing (USA 2005)
Running Time: 74 minutes
Rated: Unrated

HARRY AND MAX, on its surface, offers the promise of many gleefully lurid pleasures. The title characters are brothers, played by handsome young television stars (Bryce Johnson of the WB cult series Popular and Cole Williams of ABC's 8 Simple Rules), who make it quite clear in the opening scenes that they are having a consensual incestuous relationship. Oooo, scandalé! The film is also written and directed by Christopher Munch (The Sleepy Time Gal), an award-winning filmmaker with a resume that stretches from the festivals of Sundance to Berlin. Perhaps best of all, the piece offers a meaty role to Rain Phoenix (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues), a fascinating screen presence who appears all too rarely these days.

And yet even with all of its recommendable elements, there's no doubt that HARRY AND MAX ends up being an exercise in futility, a stuttering mediocrity that cannot surmount its own discomfort. Incest is a lightning rod for audiences, many of whom (like myself) find it difficult to justify positively in any situation. HARRY AND MAX, however, cannot decide if it wants to be entranced by its subject matter, or damning of it...it alternates between coyly dull soft-core and an after-school special.

Ultimately deciding to duck the polemics of its central premise, the film meanders off into the characters' other relationships, including Harry's former girlfriend Nikki (Phoenix) and an older man involved with Max (Tom Gilroy). Neither of these characters shed much light on director/writer Munch's intended message, bogging down in soapy clichés and predictability. A final coda, which takes place years later, reveals a ridiculously pat moralizing (the now openly gay Max is in a healthy relationship, while the closeted older brother, Harry, is a psychological, moral, and emotional mess). You can almost hear the filmmakers exhale with relief, having made a film about incest without actually having an opinion on the subject.

Low-tech cinematography and obvious SoCal locations give HARRY AND MAX a faux-indie edge; unintentionally, the shoestring budget brings a little focus to the mushy, clouded screenplay. Still, the film feels eerily out of time and place, dated almost upon its arrival. In a preposterous twist of fate, both Harry and Max are successful musicians -- Harry is a member of a famous boy band, while Max is a retro-rock wonder a la Hanson. (With the boy band era in tatters and Hanson long gone from the charts, is HARRY AND MAX already a history piece?) As the performances go, Williams offers the best effort, balancing Max's childish idealism with a hype-conscious earthiness. Johnson and Phoenix, it is sad to say, are often painful in their scenes; Johnson's performance style has the indicative earmarks of television, while Phoenix is adrift with a character that is little more than plot extension.

Long, long story short: there may be an audience for Munch's wavering effort, a draw for those attracted to the creepy sensationalism of consensual incest. But even they will probably find themselves bored and disappointed in HARRY AND MAX, waiting for something -- anything -- to matter.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2004 Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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