Emily Watson has said that she took the title role in Trixie because she wanted to lighten up after playing a run of tormented femmes. In Alan Rudolph’s torturously whimsical gumshoe caper — he calls his mutant hybrid ”screwball noir” — the striking English actress who smoked and suffered in Angela’s Ashes transforms herself into a wifty working-class Chicago casino detective who becomes an amateur sleuth. But Watson’s Trixie tracks clues with so little playfulness that the character appears to be a damaged American cousin of the simpleton sexual martyr the actress so memorably played in Breaking the Waves.
In the course of her casino gig, this stupor-prone heroine hangs out with the kind of characters who tend to populate noir dustups — only way screwier. The local lowlifes include a cut-rate lounge performer (Nathan Lane, trying hard as always), a mangy groupie (Brittany Murphy), a bumbling loverboy (Dermot Mulroney), and a sleekly corrupt state senator (Rudolph loyalist Nick Nolte) — all of whom may figure in the murder mystery Trixie wants to solve. While she’s on the case, though, she murders the English language itself with nonstop, progressively less effervescent malapropisms. ”That guy smokes like a fish.” ”Do I have an ace up my hole?” Pretty soon, everybody who meets her is talking nutty too, infected by her virulent goofiness. ”If you can’t keep quiet, just shut up,” barks one heavy. Rudolph underscores his delight with the fractured genre and dialogue by frequently shooting mirror reflections.
It’s a tribute to the director’s superior standing as actor-friendly that grateful performers are willing to follow the man who made Afterglow — but also Breakfast of Champions — anywhere. After ”beating a dead horse to death” with Trixie, though, both Rudolph and his actors may want to go ”back to square zero.” D