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“Ed's Next Move,” a sweet and quietly funny love story, is the kind of movie that seems to be meandering, and then it sneaks up on you. It begins as the story of a museum-quality nerd: a rice geneticist from Wisconsin who is so organized in his mid-20s that he even has his cemetery plot bought and paid for. He moves to New York, and swims into the orbit of a young singer who does Liz Phair-type songs about the irony of banality. They kiss.
By the time they kiss, I wanted them to kiss. That's how I realized the movie was working. In some of the earlier passages I'd been unconvinced, but the movie builds quietly but very surely toward a point at which we like these characters, we worry about them and (always the fatal step) we recognize elements of ourselves.
The movie stars Matt Ross as Eddie Brodsky, who knows a lot about rice but will never, at his present rate of progress, get any thrown at him at a church door. Callie Thorne is Lee Nicol, a New Yorker who regards Wisconsin as a word association test for which the answer is “cheese.” Kevin Carroll plays Ray, Eddie's first roommate, a ladies' man who gives him advice about women and the ways of the world. Ed complains, “You allow for things I can't even pronounce.” It goes without saying that Ed and Ray spend a lot of time sitting in the kinds of diners that have Formica countertops and waitresses who write orders down on green Guest Checks. All single men in the movies hold most of their conversations in diners, maybe because putting them across a booth from one another is a perfect way to explain a dialogue scene in which the faces are close enough for a two-shot without anybody getting any funny ideas. Just in recent weeks, I've witnessed heartfelt diner discussions between single men in “Swingers” and “Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead,” and then of course there was the mother of all Guys in Diners Scenes, in “Heat.” Ed and Ray discuss topics such as the origin of “nitty gritty” and the types of Arctic fauna. The diner is run by a friendly Jewish woman who introduces Ed to such exotic foods as bagels and borscht; one of the film's underlying themes is the way the Wisconsin kid learns the ropes in the big city.
One thing he needs to know more about is the mind of a woman. His telephone conversations with Lee sound like they were memorized in a foreign language. She looks at him sometimes as if he's a pod person. On their first date, Ed kills some mice and she leaves and he is deeply despondent, and Ray explains, “Let's just say first dates go better when nothing dies.” The movie was written and directed by John Walsh, who told a Toronto Film Festival crowd he financed it with credit cards after a friend tipped him off about lots of extra 35-mm. stock left over from the filming of “Smoke.” (That film's director, Wayne Wang, used very long takes, so if an actor lost it early in a scene, there were good amounts of unexposed film remaining on the reel.) The movie doesn't betray its low-budget origins. It looks as good as it needs to, and sounds wonderful; Walsh has a gift for dialogue. We get the kinds of lines new lovers use when they are at a loss to explain their chemistry: “If Raymond Carver and Hoagy Carmichael had gotten together, they would have sounded like us.” And quiet, funny little exchanges (“You smell like cookies.” “It's a perfume that I made myself.”).
“Ed's Next Move” is a comedy, not a docudrama, and yet it's more accurate about romance than many more serious movies. For one thing, it is driven by dialogue and social uncertainty, rather than by testosterone. For every romance that begins with a Mickey Rourke type slamming a Kim Basinger type up against an alley wall in the rain, there are a thousand, I suppose, that begin when your cat throws up a fur ball in the lap of the woman you're trying to impress.