Review: Clorox, Ammonia and Coffee!

Clorox, Ammonia and Coffee! is considerably less miserable than Free Radicals, but it’s also more schematic.

Clorox, Ammonia and Coffee!
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

There’s a thesis paper waiting to be written about the effects of Short Cuts on today’s generation of new filmmakers: Call it “Car Crashes, Hospitals & Clowns: Cultural Fragmentation and the Robert Altman Mosaic.” Altman’s 1993 masterpiece has inspired and shaped a generation of directors unlike any other film since, well, Star Wars. Indeed, if George Lucas’s soulless toy factory—and Spielberg’s considerably more insightful Jaws—hadn’t forever changed Hollywood’s DNA, one can imagine the effects Nashville might have had on the way films were made during the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Filmmakers like Barbara Albert (Free Radicals) and Mona J. Hoel are attracted to Altman’s work because the director shares their interest in the way the world around them ticks. Like Buñuel, it’s as if Altman observes life through the eye of a microscope (or the glass of a fish tank, a popular motif in his films), except Altman doesn’t prick his subjects like Buñuel does.

Though I admit that my distaste for Free Radicals and, now, Hoel’s Clorox, Ammonia and Coffee! may have something to do with my sketchy understanding of Austrian and Norwegian malaise and social customs (if you’re Norwegian and reading this: Are your Home Depots stocked to the rafters with trampolines?), Albert and Hoel’s films still feel like callous put-ons: Rather than study human misery, they wallow in it, and instead of allowing lives to intersect on their own cosmic terms (however tragic the collision may be), they force chemical reactions between characters, often using trite plot points and flashy editing techniques.

Clorox, Ammonia and Coffee! is considerably less miserable than Free Radicals, but it’s also more schematic. Beginning with an overhead shot of the town where its characters live, something about the film brings to mind The Sims, from the angular hedges of people’s homes to the way that Hoel’s snaky camera jumps from story to story. To wit, these aren’t lives that seem to operate by any sort of natural logic, as it’s Hoel that pulls the strings.

A man leaves his son and wife, who’s pregnant and assaults a local merchant, who helps the woman get to the hospital where a nurse works who has a crush on the policeman who arrested the pregnant woman and who has a daughter who gets her drugs from the mother of the guy who left the pregnant woman. And if the “we fly too little and clean too much” maxim that closes the film is as tenuous as its title, that’s because Hoel is so busy figuring out ways to get everyone into the hospital together for a specious kumbaya show of human faith to really give her characters anything resembling souls. In the end, they’re just pawns from the same My First Altman playset Albert must have used. That said, anyone know where I can get one?

 Cast: Fares Fares, Benedikte Lindbeck, Denis Storhoi, Kjersti Holmen, Svein Scharffenberg, Nils Vogt, Nicole Madeleine Aurdal, Even Stormoen, Eva Bergh, Per Lillo Stenberg  Director: Mona J. Hoel  Screenwriter: Mona J. Hoel  Running Time: 105 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2004  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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