(On Cable TV, July 2013) Ever the optimist, I keep watching made-for-TV movies in the hopes that some of them will be better than the usual dreck that goes for those kinds of films. The Perfect Boss certainly won’t do much to raise my future hopes: While the premise suggests an interesting antagonist in the person of a high-powered psychopathic female executive, the sad reality of the film doesn’t live up to even modest expectations: Jamie Luner is a complete dud as the antagonist, her face seemingly unable to move above the eyes, and the rest of her performance barely being more expressive. The title of the film barely makes sense, as the conflict between the antagonist and the young-woman protagonist who pieces together her involvement in her father’s death doesn’t even allow the two to be in direct contact. The script occasionally manages a few clever moments, but much of it is stock material out of anti-pharma diatribes and sociopath case studies. The one kernel of interest that the film has for Ottawa-area viewers is that the film was shot at a number of locations around the city: Savvy viewers will spot a Vanier street, MacArthur Bowling, Tea Party and the conference area of Casino Lac Leamy. Unfortunately, this really isn’t enough to make The Perfect Boss particularly compelling: while it’s not abysmally bad, it’s no really good either, and there are plenty of other, better thrillers out there.
(Video On-demand, March 2013) For a straightforward low-budget woman-in-peril thriller, House at the End of the Street isn’t too bad: There are a few narrative curveballs, the lead actress is compelling and the brisk pacing forgives a lot of other issues. Few people outside the Ottawa area will care that the film was shot in the neighborhood, but plenty will see the film because it stars a then-little-known Jennifer Lawrence. Fortunately, Lawrence has what it takes to play a plucky teenager in danger: her performance is compelling as she holds her own alongside Elizabeth Shue. The rural setting is good enough for a few chills, and after a clumsy start, the direction builds a decent sense of tension as each suspense set-piece is put together. It wouldn’t be fair to overhype House at the End of the Street as anything more than a run-of-the-mill thriller, especially during its first act, but it’s quite a bit better than its savage critical reception may have suggested. If nothing else, it shows Jennifer Lawrence running around looking scared in the classic tradition of exploitation thrillers.
Harper Collins, 1997, 227 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 0-00-224562-0
As a political junkie working in Ottawa, I’m more interested than most in Canadian politics and the idea of a roman-à-clef describing mid-nineties power struggles in the capital is the kind of thing I’m predisposed to like. That it comes from one of my favourite political operatives is a bonus… although it wasn’t possible to know that at the time the book hit bookstores twelve years ago.
Party Favours was published in 1997 as from one pseudonymous “Jean Doe”. It describes a civil war inside the then-reigning Liberal Party of Canada, between the factions of a populist French-Canadian Prime Minister and a scheming “Liberal-in-name-only” upstart who wants to be the PM in lieu of the PM. Any half-aware Canadian political observer could see that this was a thinly-veiled fictional take on the rivalry between the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin camp as of the mid-nineties. Given the novel’s overwhelmingly positive portrait of Prime Minister “Bobby Laurier”, it seemed obvious to most that Party Favours came from a Chrétien loyalist. But which one? When it was revealed that “Jean Doe” was none other than the “Prince of Darkness” Warren Kinsella, a Liberal strategist and staunch Chrétien loyalist often compared to the US’s James Carville, few were shocked.
The Canadian political/journalistic complex being so small and vicious, the book was savaged upon publication. And, in some ways, it deserves its knocks: From a purely narrative viewpoint, Party Favours isn’t all that refined: An umpteenth political thriller about a semi-innocent protagonist who comes to understand how things truly work in the world, the novel doesn’t break any new grounds nor narrative twists. Our hero is a likable young journalist who works on a government-shattering scoop, finds love and manages to bring down those who deserve it. In the conclusion of the story, he is apparently naïve enough to be shocked –shocked!– at the way he has been used by political antagonists… after spending an entire novel cynically explaining the nature of what happens to journalists in Ottawa. Elsewhere in the book, the narrator takes an actual guided tour of the city to tell us about it (subtle!), large portion of the narrative just give way to exposition and the identity of a mysterious source is so obvious that it’s embarrassing that a mystery is made about it at all. This is not an accomplished novelist’s masterpiece.
But where Party Favours shine far more brightly is in its insider’s commentary about Ottawa and the people who go there to seek power and/or glory. Kinsella has a lot of fun taking on lobbyists, journalists and politicians, not to mention public servants in one of the book’s most amusing passages:
“The pools [seen from the airplane] conjured up an image of the classical Ottawa bureaucrat: an overweight white male killing time as an information systems analyst somewhere deep in the shadowed recesses of Statistics Canada, let’s say, scrambling home at 3:30 P.M. every July afternoon to slouch by his pool. He carried a briefcase, purchased at the Bay, that almost always contained little more than his lunch and the Ottawa Sun. He drove to and from work in a dented three-year-old Pontiac Sedan. He voted Liberal. He earned much more than I did. And he had a swimming pool nestled alongside his suburban split-level, where he and his wife and their offsprings congregated in the muggy Ottawa summer.” [P.16]
Perfection itself. (And I refuse to tell you how much this description matches me, because it’s too close for comfort.)
The above paragraph being the worst thing in Party Favours about me and my place in the national capital, I was free to enjoy the rest of the novel for what it was: a splendidly entertaining chainsaw job on political Ottawa. For a country with a vigorous publishing and political industry, it’s surprising that there haven’t been that many political thrillers and satires –although the grants that most Canadian publishers receive from the government may be enough of a cynical answer for that mystery. Suffice to say that Party Favours in an entertaining book, even when it doesn’t work as a novel: Kinsella had fun writing it, and readers without grudges (and with a good working knowledge of mid-nineties Canadian politics) will enjoy at least good chunks of it.
The added advantage of reading it now is that we now know who, in the great Chrétien/Martin face-off, ultimately won. Hint: It was the guy who won three successive majorities.