TIFF 2022: The Umbrella Men, by David Bax
John Barker’s The Umbrella Men is one of those movies the value of which lies more in its specificity–its window into a part of the world rarely glimpsed in international cinema–than in its technical qualities. And I’m not talking about any sort of academic documentary exploration meant to expose a culture to the wider world. Barker has created a more illuminating document simply by making a fun movie in a recognizable genre in a setting he knows. In this case, that setting is the “Cape Malay” Muslim community of Cape Town. Barker’s fun romp of a heist comedy is set against the backdrop of the “Tweede Nuwe Jaar” celebration, a “second new year” rooted in the history of slavery. That, along with race, class, the legacy of apartheid and other issues, are never far from the movie’s mind, even as it spins its light, frothy tale.
The Umbrella Men is the kind of lighthearted movie that has animation accompanying its titles but, aside from that and the occasional lens flare, there’s not much to distinguish it stylistically. It is, however, replete with the kind of date and location cards that movies with complicated plots use to keep you up to speed, even if here they only serve make the plot seem complicated.
It’s not my intention to make Barker seem like an amateur (even if some of the acting on display here feels a touch below professional). On the contrary, he’s been cranking out movies and television for pretty much the entire 21st century. But there’s not much of a point of view to hang your hat on here.
Instead, along with co-screenwriters Lev David and Philip Roberts, Barker puts most of his energy into recreating the trappings of the heist genre in the screenplay, which mixes in elements of the classic “let’s put on a show” story structure as a group of musicians set out to save their threatened nightclub by stealing the money they need. So we get all the expected set-up of recruiting each member of the crew for their individual skills and then the payoff of the heist itself with plenty of the attendant twists, double-crosses and other would-be surprises.
It’s hard to avoid mentioning how much The Umbrella Men sticks to the rulebook of its genre, borrowing from heist movies that have come before. In that sense, it does all feel a little underwhelming. But there’s also something to be said for how much Barker fills his movie with music, much of it performed live and at length on camera. Music and a love of it have lifted up plenty of movies in the past. They do so here too.