Containing a backdrop quilted with uneasy depictions of emotional scarring and stalker psychology, “White on Rice” is perhaps the most lightweight, instinctive and jubilant indie comedy I’ve seen this year. Co-writer/director Dave Boyle devises a brisk play of ridiculousness, though plunging the action into charismatic Japanese-American cultural aesthetics, providing the film an engrossing identity to go along with its flavorful laughs and skillful performances.
Traveling to Utah from Japan to pick up the pieces of his life after his divorce, Jimmy (Hiroshi Watanabe, “Letters from Iwo Jima”) has moved in with his forgiving sister Aiko (Nae), who attempts to keep him away from her disapproving husband Tak (Mio Takada), losing sight of her enterprising son Bob (Justin Kwong) in the process. An aimless obsessive on the verge of 40 years of age, Jimmy has grown weary of his dead-end jobs and failed relationships, looking to Tak’s fetching niece Ramona (Lynn Chen) as romantic salvation. Unable to charm her with his earnest buffoonery, Jimmy finds the patience around him thinning, urging him to figure out a new path for his man-child ways before he inflicts more damage on his family.
Opening with a spoof samurai film clip and balancing precariously between Japanese and English dialogue, it takes a few moments for “Rice” to settle in and reveal its considerable personality. Boyle elects the slow-burn approach, following Jimmy’s injurious mistakes and oblivious attitude to observe family members thoroughly engaged in their own private worlds, ceasing their function as a loving unit. The way the story highlights their yearn to return to proper communication is where Boyle infuses needed heart into the comedy. However, once the players are in place and Jimmy’s obsessions launched, “Rice” strolls into a completely blindsiding direction: absolute hilarity.
I roared through much of “Rice,” witnessing Boyle manufacture a dry comedy that’s more than willing to lean into silly behaviors, treating the characters as lovable mysteries, not mean-spirited punchlines. The film returns the snappy comedic vision of John Hughes to the screen, with exquisite timing keeping the jokes tart, and Boyle refuses to color his humor with a magic marker to make them visible. The gags are accessible, but allowed an opportunity for discovery, many not registering immediately, sneaking into the system for optimal laughs. It’s a superb bit of filmmaking from Boyle, who understands the beauty of understatement and foolishness, executing the film in a sincerely inviting manner that mercifully punts away the quick fix of ironic detachment.
Casting also strengthens “Rice” marvelously. In the starring role, Watanabe is an exquisite mix of damaged, dumb, and doofy, bringing Jimmy to dazzling life in unanticipated ways. It’s a performance committed to the character’s misguided persistence, yet the work never sinks into exhaustion. Watanabe looks thrilled to be discovering the character in every scene, and his enthusiasm carries to the rest of the ensemble, who also swell “Rice” with sublime line readings and reactions that goose the gags. Also worth a mention is young Kwong, who deadpans his way to perfection as the real silent Bob. Developing a subplot where the boy, with no parental supervision to speak of, advances his genius through business ventures and classical piano, Kwong is the film’s calm, cool silent witness, with Boyle encouraging Charlie Brown overtones for the character. Kwong and Watanabe share a limited back-and-forth, but their scenes are the film’s highlights.
“White on Rice” is a feature of miniature, incredible details, masterfully laid out by Boyle on an enchantingly limited budget. The picture bursts with creative energy and stupendous execution, continuously generating colossal laughs as it arranges a colorful bouquet of insecurities and absurdity. It’s a divine motion picture, submitting Dave Boyle as a talent to keep an eye on.Rating: A-