Review of “Park”

Park is a breezy, funny little indie film that feels like it’s straight out of the late ’90s. It features a multiple-thread story line, quirky characters and a rather odd same-sex couple, portrayed by Ricki Lake and Cheri Oteri (Saturday Night Live). After making the festival rounds in 2006, it is now in limited release and premieres in Los Angeles and New York this month.

Written and directed by Kurt Voelker, the movie is sweet, strange and predictable in the oddest of ways. The plot revolves around the interactions between 10 random people in a Los Angeles park during lunch hour. As is key in this type of film, everyone is connected in some way (or becomes involved with each other throughout the course of the story), but the movie wisely introduces the characters one by one, easing the audience in.

Warning: Spoilers

The film opens on April (Dagney Kerr), a suicidal girl who just can’t get it right (in life or in suicide, apparently), who has accidentally purchased blanks for her gun. Next, sexy Krysta (Izabella Miko) and affable nerd Ian (David Fenner) pull up in their dog-washing van for lunch break in the park.

Nearby, another van arrives, holding four 20-something P.R. professionals with their own sexual hang-ups. Soon afterward, a luxury SUV pulls up, driven by Dennis (Billy Baldwin), the sleazy lawyer.

Ian is in love with Krysta, but she only has eyes for rich, egotistical Dennis, who has only come to the park for one reason. They proceed to have loud, obvious sex while poor Ian listens in and April keeps trying to kill herself by any means possible. Parked on a nearby hill, Dennis’ wife, Peggy (Ricki Lake), miserably spies on the proceedings with her best friend, Claire (Cheri Oteri).

And over in the 20-something van, uptight Meredith (Anne Dudek) and Sheryl (Melanie Lynskey) protest when Nathan (Trent Ford) insists that he and shy Babar (Maulik Pancholy) aren’t gay, they’re nudists.

The tightly paced and quite funny Park flies from one story line to the next with ease and abandon. April’s increasingly desperate (and humorous) suicide attempts slide right into Peggy’s laments on Dennis’ infidelity, to the sexual tension boiling over in the P.R. van. There are more sexual politics and wacky hookups going on here than in your average season of The Real World, but thankfully, the action is easy to follow and each thread streamlined enough to absorb in one viewing.

The Peggy/Claire story line constitutes all of the “lesbian content” in the film, which isn’t without its problems. Peggy and Claire begin the film as best friends and partners in crime, spying on Peggy’s cheating husband and hilariously destroying his beloved luxury SUV while wearing president masks, Set It Off-style. Claire is the consummate long-suffering best friend, going all the way for Peggy, even lightening the miserable mood by suggesting Dennis’ oversized vehicle is a cheap ploy at overcompensation.

After the carnage done to the SUV, Claire begins to take a different tack in comforting her distraught friend, suggesting that they’re more than just friends and have somehow lived all their lives as repressed lesbians. Then Claire actually leans over, and the two make out with all the subtlety of a sweeps week girl-on-girl affair, much to the pleasure of Darnell (Anthony “Treach” Criss), the auto service worker passing by to rescue Dennis and Krysta from the ruined SUV.

The whole scene is rather uncomfortable because it feels random and out of place, as nothing in the previous interactions so much as hints at an attraction between the two women. And it gets even stranger: After the kiss, Peggy is transformed, convinced that this (her true sexuality) is the piece she has been missing in life, while Claire immediately backpedals, asserting her heterosexuality. It’s a massive sea change for a 15-second embrace, and it feels false.

Later, the story line redeems itself with a very sweet scene wherein Peggy attempts to make her first visit to a women’s bar. She paces nervously outside the door (sans Claire) until a kindly regular gently asks her, “First time?” and escorts her in. It’s cute, refreshing, and much more emotionally honest than the weird encounter in the car.

Ricki Lake does an admirable job giving voice to the kind of confusion and fear a first-timer actually experiences, and it’s a nice departure from the gallows humor and other wackiness going on back at the park.