For a film built around the mutually redemptive possibilities of an unlikely friendship, The Merry Gentleman seems coolly unconcerned with showing us anything of its central relationship apart from a few awkward exchanges, and uninterested in developing one of these characters beyond a near-silent abstraction. When, several days before Christmas, tailor-cum-killer-for-hire Frank Logan (Michael Keaton, also making his directorial debut), wanders out, post-hit, onto a building ledge to end his life, he’s scared back onto the roof by the scream of a pedestrian below. The scream belongs to Kate Frazier (Kelly Macdonald), a seeming naïf of a secretary with a Scottish accent and an air of calculated reserve, fleeing an abusive husband in order to start a new life in relative anonymity. Without revealing his identity as the potential suicide, Frank inserts himself tentatively into the woman’s life, initiating a friendship which we’re supposed to understand benefits both partners, at least initially.
But while a plausibly casual understanding may develop between the two non-talkers, when Kate declares, “I’d say we’ve been pretty good for one another,” after a few believably awkward exchanges, it’s difficult to see exactly what she means. Until their final reckoning in an empty church, the two are almost never glimpsed exchanging an audible word. When we see them talking, the sound is either muted to the point of incomprehensibility or eliminated entirely in favor of a singer-songwriter ballad schmaltzing up the soundtrack, the void filled up instead by pretty imagery such as the couple burning Kate’s old Christmas tree in a snow-covered field. The relationship thus abstracted to the point of nonexistence, the man reduced to a barely palpable presence skulking at the margins of the screen, the couple’s mutual development becomes a question of indifference, culminating in a final life-or-death moment for Frank, which, intentions to the contrary, can scarcely hope to register as a matter of very great concern.
A tad more successful is Keaton’s handling of the woman’s other developing relationship. When the schlubby detective assigned to solving one of Frank’s murders shows a romantic interest in Kate, his dual interests (personal and professional) get confused, playing out in a pair of awkward dinner dates in which the personalities of both characters come uncomfortably, if amusingly, to the fore. But nearly every other mode that Keaton attempts, from the thriller trappings which the film occasionally dons, to his tentative stabs at light slapstick (Kate trying to get a Christmas tree into her apartment building) to the religious self-examination which the director tries to keep from becoming the dominant note, but which threatens to anyway, proves a misfire.
It’s this last tack that finally sinks the film beyond recuperation, Keaton peppering obvious religious symbolism onto a screenplay that already features its share of earnestly vapid talk about God, a Yuletide setting and the line “It’s a Christmas miracle” spoken with nary a hint of irony. The filmmakers gamely attempt to complicate the action by introducing a few darker undercurrents (most disastrously in the return of Kate’s husband as a menacing born-again Jesus freak whose presence plays more as self-parody than legitimate threat), but Keaton’s frequent shifting of tones does little to offset the gaping hole at the film’s heart. Without any discernible connection between the two leads, and despite convincing performances from Keaton and especially Macdonald, the project finally veers off into a hopeless void of muttered exchanges and studied impassivity from which it never recovers.