As an actor, Michael Keaton has always been something of a puzzle: flashes of brilliance early in his career; a quixotic, Batman-fueled stardom; then a seemingly instantaneous creative and commercial spiral, whose only legacy may be the trivia question to be of a family comedy with the same plot and title of a horror movie made in the same decade (answer: “Jack Frost”). Hollywood is full of stories of actors making bad career choices, but in Keaton's case, I always assumed there was more going on there.
The Merry Gentleman, Keaton's first directorial outing, offers little in the way of answers to the Keaton puzzle. In addition to the directing, Keaton also stars as Frank Logan, a lonely and reserved Chicago hitman, who finds quiet and (possibly) platonic companionship with Kate Frazier (Kelly MacDonald, sporting her authentic Scottish accent). Kate also has her share of secrets, primarily the fact that she is on the run from her abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale), and their friendship is driven by their shared love of privacy. This budding relationship is somewhat complicated by the fact that Kate is the only witness to Frank's last hit job (indeed, that's technically how they “meet”). Furthermore, the alcoholic, divorced cop (Tom Bastounes) investigating the case also has a romantic interest in Kate.
Believe it or not, somewhere in this mish-mash of clichés, there is a decent idea. The action occurs at Christmas time, hence the title, and one can see this having gone a different direction, a darkly comic play on the idea of the holidays further isolating the already lonely. Indeed, when Keaton spouted his first few lines in a Beetlejuice-like grumble, it seemed as though Frank Logan could be a similarly comic miscreant, a cold-blooded contract killer who stumbles through the rest of life. However, unlike other actors-turned-directors who borrow from the more talented filmmakers they have worked with, Keaton seems to have retained little from his days with Tim Burton, or even Ron Howard for that matter (not to mention Quentin Tarantino, who knows a thing or two about movies centered around professional killers).
Instead, what Keaton offers us is a character drama with no characters. Frank and Kate's relationship is conveyed through a series of silent moments and a Christmas tree that is likely employed as a metaphor, though it is never clear exactly what underlying meaning it might have. Indeed, Keaton peppers the movie with inane spiritual motifs. For instance, when Frank first spots Kate through the lens of his sniper rifle, she is imitating a Jesus pose she has just seen in church (where of course she goes to find peace and solace). Is she his savior? Sure, maybe. We understand that Frank has thoughts of suicide, but we never know why. Perhaps he is tired of killing, but what got him into it in the first place? Why all of a sudden, after presumably being a contract killer for years, would he suddenly grow so world weary? The holiday blues? Unfortunately, that's about as much insight as we get.