Design

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Design

Cast:

More than once in Design, the children's song "Pop Goes The Weasel" plays over the soundtrack, creaking like a rusty old jack-in-the-box unearthed from an attic corner. And so goes this grimly deterministic drama, which views life as a monotonous routine ("Round and round the cobbler's bench, the monkey chased the weasel") that's inevitably punctuated ("Pop!") by awful surprises. Not since Requiem For A Dream has a film coughed up such a cosmically doomed triptych of major characters, though first-time writer-director Davidson Cole occasionally breaks the overcast skies with a few welcome rays of offhand humor. Cole, a Chicago native, seems to have studied Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" at the city's Art Institute: Set primarily in the evening, with dark blue tones shrouding its insomniac loners, Design trails the painting's foreboding mood like Pig Pen trailing a dirt cloud in Peanuts. As its title suggests–and as Cole's character vocalizes in the final minutes–the film contends that God has a grand plan, that free will is illusory, and that most people are basically screwed, biding their time before death (or worse). But in order to advance this philosophy, Cole's script relies heavily on convenient timing and implausible coincidences, so tidily written that a murder weapon literally appears through divine intervention. Looking as though he was imported from an early Atom Egoyan movie, Edward Cunningham plays a lonely wedding photographer whose taste for voyeurism gets him in trouble with a bride's husband and his burly groomsmen. Meanwhile, Hill Street Blues vet Daniel J. Travanti broods soulfully as a middle-aged louse who turns to the bottle when his wife of 26 years leaves him for a beret-wearing doofus she met at a community-center art class. Even worse off than the other two, Cole takes the plum role of a cursed "freak" who works graveyard shifts loading trucks at a warehouse, then comes home to the excessively kinky demands of his sexpot girlfriend, indelibly played by Mary Kay Cook. The lives of these three men intersect in ways big and small, but their combined bad luck only yields more vicious strains of misery. Design works best in its early scenes, when the hands of fate aren't yet visible and its characters' dark obsessions and fetishes are often played for laughs. With his bleary eyes, greasy hair, and Nicolas Cage-like volatility, Cole in particular makes for a compelling, put-upon hero, acutely aware of his destined place on the heel of life's shoe. But if Cole the writer-director ever loosens his grip and allows fate to set a more varied course, his world would be easier to inhabit, for characters and viewers alike.

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