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Katie Holmes rose to cultural prominence roughly around the same time as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the quirky, ultimately quite shallow millennial incarnation of a woman who only exists to better a man. Twenty years later, it feels staggeringly retro to see Holmes doing a variation on the same type of character in “Rare Objects.” Times have changed in the interim, however, which means that now the character’s sole purpose is to support another woman on her journey of self-discovery. A Manic Pixie BFF, if you will.
In this case, the woman in need of transformation is Benita Parla (Julia Mayorga), a college student who’s come home to Queens to recover after a stint in a psychiatric hospital. She checked herself in with symptoms of PTSD after she was sexually assaulted in a bar bathroom—an event the movie doesn’t gloss over but does depict in the least explicit way possible. Benita is tired and broken. She moves back in with her mom Aymee (Sandra Santiago), an immigrant from Latin America who doesn’t know what happened to her daughter but doesn’t ask too many questions.
Through a series of whimsical events, Benita ends up taking a job at a Manhattan antiques store owned by Peter Kessler (Alan Cumming), a kind and genteel man whose business partner Ben Winshaw (Derek Luke) is always away sourcing unusual objects from around the world. Although she initially fudges her way into the job, Benita fits in beautifully at Kessler & Winshaw. That’s where—through another series of wacky coincidences—she reunites with Diana Van der Laar (Holmes), a kooky heiress who also happens to be Benita’s BFF from the psych ward.
After this twist, the movie sets out on a predictable path to an underwhelming end. The general idea seems to be that of an Altman-esque ensemble piece about the lives and loves of colorful characters in New York City. (Yes, this is a “New York is a character in the movie” movie.) The film does show promise in this area early on, in street scenes that capture the different flavors of the boroughs where Benita works and lives. Her bond with her mother has its moments as well, and the film is sincere in depicting Benita’s recovery arc. But it’s just too awkward to sustain any kind of warmth.
The primary culprit here is the editing, with some responsibility reserved for Holmes as the director. Parts of the film are unnecessarily drawn out, with lots of dead air between lines and filler in scenes. (One set at a sidewalk cafe sees Benita entering, sitting down, exchanging pleasantries with Peter, eating an oyster, and then starting a conversation.) Other parts are glossed over to the point of being confusing: At one point, Benita’s mom disappears from the story with little explanation, which seems more important than the small talk that pads so much of the narrative.
This dead air also adds a stilted quality to the performances. Cumming’s natural charm is suffocated here, and Holmes’ performance channels that Manic Pixie Dream Girl energy with a baby voice added to make things even more uncomfortable. The movie gets worse as it gets more serious: Scenes of Benita and Diana just hanging out and revisiting their trauma bond are believable, because no one is trying too hard. But a climactic confrontation between Diana and her brother James (David Alexander Flinn) ratchets up the drama and may make viewers want to crawl under the nearest table out of secondhand embarrassment.
“Rare Objects” means well. It’s trying to capture New York’s multiethnic communities, and it’s trying to make us fall in love with these characters. It’s passionate about high culture—characters discuss art and quote poetry at one another—and contains glimmers of a promising theme of history as living memory through objects. Unfortunately, none of the movie’s good intentions ever pan out.
Now playing in theaters.
Julia Mayorga as Benita
Katie Holmes as Diana
Derek Luke as Winshaw