Review: ‘Gemini’ Finds Murder in a Movie-Soaked Los Angeles

Posted March 29, 2018 6:38 p.m. EDT

There are millions of stories in the naked city, and a lot of them have been filmed in Los Angeles. A city partly made by the movies and defined by them, too, Los Angeles rarely comes off like a lived reality on screen. It’s a hazy dream, a gaudy fantasy, a noirish nightmare, an Instagramble cliché. It’s no wonder moviegoers and other virtual tourists can map it in their heads without visiting it, even if the Los Angeles they probably know is little more than an aerial view of the Hollywood sign, a cutaway to a clogged freeway and a slavering look at a bountiful blonde.

Every so often, a filmmaker plays with these banalities, which I imagine is why Aaron Katz opens “Gemini,” a pleasurably drifty, low-wattage mystery set in Los Angeles, with an upside-down shot of a palm tree. Perfectly framed and photographed, its feathery fronds spreading in silhouette against a dark-indigo night sky, the tree hangs in the shot like a chandelier. Katz gives “Gemini” the expected smoggy freeways and a blonde on a billboard, as well as the kind of mystery that certain Hollywood dreams are made of, complete with a femme fatale, a detective and a lonely horn on the soundtrack. But as that upside-down palm tree suggests, he is coming at Los Angeles from his own angle.

Like a lot of intrigues, this one opens at night. Jill (an appealing Lola Kirke), a personal assistant, is sitting behind the wheel of a parked car, her face lighted by a cellphone. It’s a decidedly ordinary scene, even if cinephiles might flash on a different woman staring into a glowing box in the explosive 1955 noir “Kiss Me Deadly.” As she often is, Jill is waiting for Heather (Zoë Kravitz), a young star going through some kind of undefined rough patch. Heather has a meeting with a filmmaker, Greg (an amusingly acid Nelson Franklin), one of those jaundiced, permanently disappointed industry types who doubtless read Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust” at too tender an age.

“You’re going to kill me,” Heather tells Jill, using a variation on a murderous sentiment that’s tossed around a lot at the start of “Gemini.” Heather has decided that she doesn’t want to do Greg’s movie, a long-gestating project, and she wants Jill to break the bad news to him. Jill does. He does not take it well. Neither does Heather’s agent, who, perhaps jokingly, though also with a hint of genuine malice, says that she wants to kill Heather, without whom there’s no movie. If Heather feels guilty about letting everyone down, she doesn’t show it, and before long she and Jill are driving into the jeweled night.

The very next day, the cops are putting a toe tag on Heather, and Jill is a person of interest and soon on the run, having fled a detective (John Cho) who’s more suavely cinematic than professionally adept. She gives herself a quick, amusing makeover, slipping on a trench coat and dyeing her hair blond, a tint that evokes Barbara Stanwyck’s viperous vamp in “Double Indemnity.” The trench at least fits Jill, a rather ordinary, opaque Nancy Drew. She enters a thickening mystery and meets a few suspects — the fine cast includes Greta Lee, James Ransone and Michelle Forbes — but Jill doesn’t so much chase down clues as stumble on those Katz has scattered.

Katz, who also wrote and edited “Gemini,” is having a good time playing around with genre, as when the camera lingers on a black bird right out of “The Maltese Falcon.” But he isn’t much concerned with the techniques of the whodunit and “the simple art of murder,” to quote a memorable phrase from Raymond Chandler. The murder here isn’t interesting or especially mysterious (intentionally, it seems), and Jill’s sleuthing is often plain silly. What really interests Katz here are movies — the fingerprints of directors such as Robert Altman, David Lynch, Michael Mann and Sean Baker are all on “Gemini” — and how they have shaped Los Angeles, or at least our ideas about it. In his documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” filmmaker Thom Andersen observes that the city is hard to get right: “It’s elusive, just beyond the reach of an image.” It’s the neon blur out a car window, a sun-baked backdrop. Katz knows that dream city, and early on, when Jill and Heather drive through the night, the camera looks onto a gaudy slipstream.

Katz understands that blur is seductive. But there is always more — even in Los Angeles — and so, as his desultory mystery unfolds, he turns his attention elsewhere. He lingers on beauty and catches the light at dusk, searching and sometimes finding an elusive city that has always been there for those who bother to look.

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Rated R for murder and adult language. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.