Hiroshi Watanabe has a remarkably loveable face. As White on Rice’s leading man, he infuses Hajime “Jimmy” Beppu with enough earnest optimism to almost carry the film’s rather flat story. Jimmy, a 40-year-old divorcee working part time in a dead-end office job and sharing a bunk-bed with his 10-year-old nephew, doesn't seem to have much to be happy about. His most notable achievement in life so far has been playing a non-speaking part in a third-rate Samurai movie when he was a young man. Jimmy’s sensibilities are firmly entrenched in a weird permanently adolescent limbo, marked by a keen interest in dinosaurs and an inability to relate to adults on virtually any level.
Jimmy’s long-suffering sister Aiko (Nae) puts him up in her suburban house, much to the chagrin of her no-nonsense older husband, Tak (Mio Takada). Just as you would expect from any “indie” comedy, hijinks ensue involving Jimmy’s apparent disregard for the sanctity of his extended family’s home. It is precisely through scenes of Jimmy interacting with the family that we begin to understand the conceit of White on Rice: it’s another oddball quirk-fest in a genre of film that turns out to be infuriatingly hard to do well. The plentiful character tics and absurd situations of White on Rice remind me of another unnecessarily quirky film from earlier this year, the Paul Dano/Zooey Deschanel mess Gigantic.
Dave Boyle, the man responsible for creating White on Rice, is a young director with promise. His first feature, Big Dreams Little Tokyo, challenged both Western and Eastern ideas of race while remaining a genuinely heartfelt and sometimes hilarious film. Boyle wrote the script for White on Rice recalling a period in his life when he considered himself unemployable. The despair and dread that he mentioned feeling in various press releases and interviews do not make it to the screen. However, the presumably funny anecdotes Boyle must have come up with while on the dole are peppered liberally through Jimmy’s story of unjust malaise and freeloading.
While Mr. Watanabe plays Jimmy with about as much sincerity as you could ever ask for in a story that often steps over the line between character and caricature, the writing of White on Rice eventually trumps his noble efforts. Simply put: Jimmy’s actions and motives are forced. His penchant for wearing Velcro sneakers and early-90s clothing seem contrived and are even specifically made mention by more than one ancillary character -- you know, just in case you forgot how quirky this Jimmy guy really is. Boyle’s imagining of Jimmy sets the film up for unfavorable comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite — the question is whether Boyle does this on purpose.
In the end, White on Rice attempts sincerity and pathos, but ends up merely repopulating a worn-out and fake-outré indie cliché with Asian characters, which is apparently designed to give it enough newness to forgive the lazy characterization and plot holes. On the other hand, Boyle might just be going through a tragic sophomore slump as a director. Let’s hope the case is the latter.