Ursula. That name always comes with a story. To Connor Ryan, she’s not the one who got away, but the rich almost-fiancée he left for the sinkhole of Atlantic City real estate. In the opening of Michael Clayton’s upcoming film, The Dunning Man, Connor Ryan collects his things from Ursula’s apartment, savors one last look inside her underwear drawer, and heads out, $20,000 in her debt.
To say the next few months go downhill might be an understatement. The tables have turned and Connor becomes the debt collector himself; he’s a landlord to three beachside units that house a variety of creatures and cretins. Alice with the “pretty face” complains about the busted AC and “love sounds” from above (to which she, her drunk boyfriend and her 9-year-old daughter Ava have been the constant audience). The culprit is one Styker Jones, a once-platinum rap star and closet intellectual, who has daily home business with his harem, Rhee and Sharon. But the trouble comes to a head when Erika Deitz-Hoffman and her clan of “animal people” move in. Consider yourself warned.
The film, a cinematic incarnation of Kevin Fortuna’s short story, “The Dunning Man,” of his eponymous short story collection, is a masterful ode to all things owed. It’s a damaged mosaic of lonely people that hardly fit together, seeking more than just monetary compensation for their woes. Perhaps it’s Styker who says it best, while whiskied up and (naturally) hitting some golf balls: “It’s not about the money.” To prove his point, when later in the scene some hooligans threaten to take Styker’s car for a joy ride, Styker takes out his own windshield with his nine iron, then shoots it.
The Dunning Man is as hard-hitting as an Irish whisky itself. But its blatant absurdity is tempered by intensely human acting. While at times it verges on the surreal, the story was inspired by true events and never strays into the abstract. You can’t make this stuff up, I suppose. If the Chechan mobsters, tiger named Jezebel, and near-fatal dog attack don’t get your heart going, it will certainly be the unhappy-go-unlucky realism of Connor Ryan (or as Styker likes to call him, “Karma Lion”).
In Fortuna’s book, we first meet Connor in the opening story, “Dead.” He’s making a trek to Atlantic City to meet Ursula, “the Girlbomb,” for dinner. But he’s distracted by a strange species of public transit folk that keep getting in his way. This is what I would call, a “Fortuna” story. A Fortuna story is one that crafts character, ambiance, mood and dialect without sacrificing plot. Each line is infused with an acute commentary and philosophy not unlike a tipsy Irish half-brother of Bret Easton Ellis. Each of his stories are elevated to the level of confession, where glory days mingle with hard times, where old loves become new enemies. Love is less a feeling than a sound and shape. Whether it’s the adorable mess singer, Maggie; or the poor fight-prone army vet, Jimmy; just by their names, you know they’re legends.
Director Michael Clayton has been able to translate Fortuna’s prose into a film that, like the book, defies genre. And despite its mass appeal, the book was published by indie publisher, Lavender Ink, which maintains its intimate integrity. It was this level of intimacy that made it appeal to USA Today Best Film Festival, Cinequest, a vanguard Silicon Valley organization on the edge of creative innovation. Cinequest aims to promote films that inspire youth, artists, and creators of all ilks, and is an apt home for such a unique film. The Dunning Man is peppered with montages of Irish-American history, an original folk/hip-hop soundtrack, and people we might at first fear, but ultimately, love.
Esquire called The Dunning Man a “funny, explosive, and disarmingly moving” tale of “people like you and me.” Kirkus Review currently awaits Fortuna’s “fictional feast” from his praiseworthy “sampler platter.” I can’t wait, either. I think Fortuna owes it to us.
See the trailer here!
Follow this link to buy The Dunning Man.
The Dunning Man opens March 4th. Follow this link for information on screenings from Cinequest and to get your ticket here!