Poolman: The Laid-Back L.A. Sleuth You Didn’t Know You Needed!

There might not be a bigger fan of Los Angeles than Chris Pine. His love for the city extends to its films, whether it’s discussing them, viewing them, or creating them, especially when they are about the process of filmmaking in Los Angeles itself. This affection is evident in his charmingly amiable directorial debut, “Poolman,” a tribute, a parody, and an ode to the dark, hazy world of L.A. stoner films. Pine shares writing credit for the script with Ian Gotler and takes on the leading role of the eccentric Darren Barrenman, also known as DB, a laid-back pool cleaner with eyes as blue as the pools he maintains with near spiritual devotion.

The Unlikely Hero

DB’s life revolves around the “pool,” and in “Poolman,” a playful nod to “Chinatown” that does not shy away from self-reference, DB’s quest leads him to follow the water. Our unlikely protagonist is akin to the Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” but with the eccentric charm of a sprightly, whimsical dream boy. With his openness to vulnerability, youthful excitement, and distinctive fashion choices, DB also brings to mind another iconic L.A. character: Pee-wee Herman.

DB’s residence is an RV parked in the courtyard of a run-down apartment complex, where he drafts typewritten letters to Erin Brockovich and spends time with his eclectic group of friends. This includes his therapist Diane (Annette Bening), documentary film collaborator Jack (Danny DeVito), girlfriend Susan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and his partner in crime, Wayne (John Ortiz). Together, they reminisce about L.A.’s golden days and stage dramatic filibusters at city council meetings about bus schedules, when they’re not hanging out.

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Not Just Another Hangout Movie

But “Poolman” is more than just another laid-back movie. It showcases Pine’s fondness for classic films, esteemed actors, iconic L.A. eateries, tiny shorts, and silly hats. The plot takes a turn with the introduction of the enigmatic woman by the pool. June Del Ray (DeWanda Wise), in her 1940s-inspired dress and hat, is the assistant to a city council member (Stephen Tobolowsky). She informs DB of her boss’s involvement in a shady real estate scheme with a developer named Teddy Hollandaise (Clancy Brown). With a simple flutter of her lashes, the pool cleaner morphs into a private investigator.

“Poolman” is Pine’s innocent take on the films he often references, like “Chinatown” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” The film unfolds in a similar vein to recent movies like “Inherent Vice” and “Under the Silver Lake” — self-aware interpretations of L.A. noir with added layers of existentialism and ironic commentary. Pine seems less interested in critiquing the genre, and more excited about immersing himself in it, tossing around its symbolism, archetypes, and incredibly niche references.

The film’s weak point is its propensity for hyper-localized humor; it’s a bit too “insider” to resonate with those outside of L.A. At times, it feels like an extended version of the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “The Californians” (Pine’s lengthy blond hair contributes to this impression). The central mystery is unconvincing and nebulous, serving more as a loose backdrop for the actors to perform in front of.

The Stellar Cast

The film’s high point is undoubtedly the cast. If Pine excels at anything, it’s in his choice of actors. He’s put together a cast that includes a superstar (Bening, who clearly enjoys her role), a comedy powerhouse (DeVito, who delivers an almost non-stop monologue about parking and pies), and a group of character actors who always instill a sense of security and capability. Add to that a captivating newcomer (Wise) and at least one charming eccentric (Ray Wise), and the film would be engaging even if they were merely reading the phone book.

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Eventually, the plot twists become overwhelming, and it feels as if Pine and Gotler have lost control of this vehicle speeding down the city’s surface streets. Yet, there’s an endearing warmth to the project that prevents it from becoming an entirely disagreeable experience. Pine’s “Poolman” is essentially the physical, emotional, and spiritual representation of Los Angeles itself: sincere, silly, and somewhat (or perhaps, quite) absurd, but persistently captivating if you choose to embrace the experience.

The film review is by Katie Walsh, a Tribune News Service film critic.

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