‘The Purple Onion’: Film Review

Edwin Li plays a struggling Chinese-American stand-up comic in Matt Szymanowski’s debut feature.

For his audience’s sake, let’s hope that Chinese-American comedian Edwin Li has a funnier act in real life than his character’s in Matt Szymanowski‘s minimalist debut feature. Depicting the efforts of a struggling stand-up comic to find his creative voice while dealing with an unwelcome house guest, The Purple Onion doesn’t succeed in making its barely-there storyline engaging or even plausible. The film recently received its world premiere at the Asian American International Film Festival.

Johnny (Li, who collaborated with the director on the story) is a dishwasher by day, comedian by night, performing at the now-closed San Francisco comedy club that gives the film its title. Defined by little more than his morose, listless demeanor and chronic masturbation habit, Johnny, who fails to get many laughs with his stand-up routine, mainly seems to fade into the woodwork even while performing.

The Bottom Line

This minimalist deadpan comedy is too recessive for its own good.

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More interesting is Jeanie (Noreen Lee), an older woman who shows up at his door one day and who — per a conversation between Johnny and his addled grandmother — may or may not be a distant relative. In any case, he agrees to let her temporarily stay with him in his cramped apartment while she seeks employment.

The storyline toggles between scenes depicting Johnny’s barren day-to-day existence, including such episodes as watching a guy in a cowboy hat warble a ditty to the strains of his ukulele in the city’s real-life Brainwash Café & Laundromat, and Jeanie participating in a career counseling class where she attracts the romantic interest of a fellow attendee (Vint Carmona).

Eventually Johnny and Jeanie achieve a level of non-romantic intimacy —they fall asleep together while watching late-night television — and he somehow successfully retools his act to humorously comment on Asian-American stereotypes.

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Failing to live up to even its modest ambitions, the film, much like its uncompelling protagonist, barely makes an impression. Enlivened only by Lee’s engaging performance as the mysterious houseguest who rediscovers her sexuality, The Purple Onion mainly serves to demonstrate that less is sometimes less.   

Production: Wolves Film, Fixafilm
Cast: Edwin Li, Noreen Lee, Lynn Gentry, Carla Clay, Larry Krone
Director/screenwriter/editor: Matt Szymanowski
Producers: Matt Szymanowski, Irma Kollar
Executive producer: Jeremiah Birnbaum
Director of photography: Bartosz Nalazek
Composer: Dan Cantrell

Not rated, 75 min.