Matthew Parkhill's Dot the I is the kind of tricked-up mental exercise that may intrigue the most impressionable film school students and a philosophy major here and there. But anyone who's gotten through sophomore year without declaring himself the next great thinker of the western hemisphere is more likely to find it a pretentious load of crap. Set in contemporary London and dedicated to the old notion that nothing's what it seems, it focuses on a love triangle linking a temperamental Spanish beauty named Carmen (Natalia Verbeke) with rich British dullard Barnaby (James D'Arcy) and out-of-work Brazilian actor Kit (Gael García Bernal), who insists on sticking his little videocam in everyone's face. A few days before Carmen and Barnaby's wedding, she goes to a send-off dinner at a French restaurant with female friends, and what is supposed to be a traditional "good luck kiss" exchanged with a total stranger (our boy Kit, it turns out) triggers confusion and ignites unexpected passion in the young bride-to-be. Is she engaged to the wrong man? Does she want marriage at all? Second and third thoughts overwhelm her.
Unfortunately, first-time writer/director Parkhill is just getting his clunky dramatic machinery in gear. From the beginning, the film hints at something fishy in the lukewarm romance between the reserved Brit and the fiery Spaniard, and the two hotblooded clichés of the piece certainly seem more suited to each other. After all, the dialogue says so: "This whole Latino thing, it's so now." Apparently, that extends even to the impetuous Carmen's wedding day; no sooner has she discarded her bridal bouquet than she's humping her Brazilian loverboy in his seedy apartment. Is there some other mystery at hand? Oh, yeah. Sure. Couple of them. By the time Parkhill is finally done messing with our heads (or so he thinks), a familiar tale of romantic incompatibility, heavily salted with jealousy and revenge, has been transformed into a self-absorbed, self-important essay on Art, Reality and Success. I'm sorely tempted to spill every bean right here and now and save you nine bucks at the box office; let it suffice to say that if you're the kind of moviegoer who's fascinated by endless ruminations on authenticity and fakery in moviemaking itself, delivered with undergraduate zeal, then Dot the I is just the ticket. But if you find dense, self-conscious mystification decorated with all kinds of fashionable post-modern gimmicks more than a bit annoying, best to look elsewhere.
The big surprise here is that Bernal, the magnetic star of Amores Perros and The Motorcycle Diaries, was attracted at all to this project. Maybe it read better on the page than it looks and sounds on the screen, but that would be no surprise: Along with his tedious array of tricks and twists, Parkhill stuffs the film with enough dizzying flashbacks, camera jitters and rock & roll editing techniques to drive a fourteen-year-old MTV addict nuts. Meanwhile, this shoot-from-the-hip director clearly believes he has something profound to say about the art of cinema and the uses of illusion, but his methods are just as bogus as his villain's. After plowing through his goofy film-within-the-film and unraveling the various secret agendas of his characters, you might feel like sending this guy to his room without any dinner, there to spend the evening absorbing Aristotle's Poetics or, at the very least, the Big Golden Book of Screenwriting.
This is not to dismiss narrative daring at the movies. If accomplished mind-gamers like Charlie Kaufman, who sent us spinning with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and Todd Solondz, whose troubled self-examination in Storytelling made a lot more sense than this newcomer's, feel like fooling with our perceptual apparatus and shuffling multiple decks of reality, let them have at it. Their fetching screen puzzles are worth the trouble. But humorless amateurs need not apply, and that's just what Parkhill proves to be.