When we talk about pop, we rarely just mean “popular.” Rather the term is often used to describe a piece of culture that fundamentally prioritizes style over substance. In its worst incarnation, directors will orchestrate their characters, situations, and locations solely to produce cool (or violent or funny) moments. In its best form, pop synthesizes honest characters and consistent themes into an aesthetic joy. With Gemini, director Aaron Katz crafts a perfectly stylish, cool, and hypnotic pop film that is best consumed — not considered.
In this way, Gemini reflects its muse, The City of Angels, infamous for its superficial thrills. There is a story with people, but these people are mere players in the endless machinations of the city. When famous actress Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz) is murdered, her assistant and dear friend, Jill (Lola Kirke), is suspect numero uno, and must unravel the mystery while simultaneously evading Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho). Other suspects include paparazzi dirtbag, Stan (a quite funny James Ransone), and Heather’s former lover, Devin (a very dour Reeve Carney), and the electro jazz score ushers everyone gracefully down the beautiful boulevards and through the cavernous mansions.
The character work is generally strong, especially in the early goings. As a director renowned for his naturalistic, no-budget indies, Katz knows how to capture the rhythm of a relationship, and he has a game cast. Kirke makes a very charming lead, nimbly balancing deadpan humor, remorse, and craftiness. Her lopsided-but-intimate friendship with Kravitz is thoughtfully-conceived and executed. Their early scenes together invoke a long and meaningful relationship, and the film would benefit from exploring it further. Once Kravitz’ Heather is murdered, however, Katz loses interest in character development, choosing to focus on the developing mystery, rotating oddball characters, and the gorgeous quality of that So-Cal light.
While paper thin, the tertiary characters dotting this world are delightful. Nelson Franklin continues to always be funny as a disgruntled film director, but the man who seems like he’s trying the hardest here to make a noir is John Cho. He infuses his detective with a veteran’s guile, but keeps his cadence warm and off-kilter, doing his part to develop an air of mystery while also lightening the mood. More than any other character he suggests that there may be something actually occurring off-screen.
Gemini positions itself within the canon of LA noir, but Katz proves much better at capturing the ephemeral coolness of his trend-setting town than the timelessness of strong intrigue. His mellow pace and bright, glib world can’t reconcile with proper tension, and “noir” is here another signal of good taste, a borrowed set of beats applied to enter into a tradition of coolness. The mystery is not bad — it is in fact clever and superficially elegant — and while it remains unsolved, the film maintains a pleasant mystique. But it is also as underdeveloped as possible, and in the end requires contortions of character and story that are not quite honest or fair. Given that the conceit ends up taking oppressive priority over any real emotional arc, the choice to even make this film a murder mystery seems questionable.
Still, the film is gorgeous and intoxicating throughout. The soundtrack deserves special mention for evoking the history of noir while remaining bracing and modern. As a production, Gemini deserves all the accolades it will certainly receive, but though everything is in its place, the story never fully capitalizes on its exciting talent. This is decadent pop comfort food, and it comes frustratingly close to greatness.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.