Monday Movie: Man of the Century, by David Bax
1999 was a great year for movies. So many milestone films were released that cineastes of a certain age (my age, to be specific) mark it as an epoch. It’s tempting, then, to blame the overcrowded arena for the miniscule impact Adam Abraham’s delightful Man of the Century made. In all honesty, though, this low-budget, high-concept, black and white, niche indie comedy was likely always destined to be ignored but for a tiny cult of devotees. Abraham co-wrote the film with Gibson Frazier, who also stars as Johnny Twennies, a man living in New York City’s present day but who seems to have been lifted directly from the late 1920s and dropped into his current life with no explanation. The screenplay and Frazier’s performance both nail the tone for this bizarre premise. It’s the contemporary inhabitants, not Johnny, who notice that things are strange. Johnny’s blitheness and lack of guile make for an engrossingly speedy comic tempo but Abraham and Frazier avoid the fish-out-of-water rut by refusing to make their lead naïve or dopey. In fact, part of the joy is seeing how easily Johnny navigates modern situations and even dangerous ones. He can hold his own in a bout of words or one of fists and he’s a hit with the ladies, either despite or because of his stubborn opacity. Abraham doesn’t rest solely on the snappy dialogue (“Say, you keep ridin’ me like a streetcar, you’re gonna have to pay the fare!”), adding in flights of fancy like an expressionistic walk up a dark and narrow staircase that seems to take forever or, in one of the film’s true highlights, an impromptu musical number when Johnny lights a cigarette, sits down at a piano and starts jauntily plinking out the 1929 hit “You Were Meant for Me,” summoning a sudden convergence of stand-up bass players, drummers with brushes and excitable saxophonists to join in. Man of the Century may not have the legacy of some other 1999 films but, if you still have a disc account with Netflix, you’ll find that it’s the cat’s pajamas, and how!