Part of the likeable routine Michael Keaton brought to his roles in the '80s was patter—sometimes manic, sometimes balky. In The Merry Gentleman, he might be overdoing the walkback: As grizzled Chicago hit man Frank Logan, Keaton lurks under a newsboy cap and speaks sparingly, often with a stagy, self-interrupting cough (another tic). Frank is the mysterious stranger who helps mousy new-in-towner Kate (Kelly Macdonald, Scots accent retained) with her Christmas tree. This triggers an hour's worth of diffident dramatic irony involving his occupation, a persistent cop (Tom Bastounes) investigating a sniper murder near where Kate works, and a possible abusive ex in her past (who, spoiler alert, turns up to deliver a terrible monologue). Keaton, who took over directing duties from ill-stricken screenwriter Ron Lazzeretti before shooting started, inherited a stock-still story of two lonely souls, and never develops their rapport. Macdonald is as approachably appealing as ever, but demurely sheds little insight on a character that needs some. Keaton's directorial debut is by no means the most embarrassing in the past few years (Anthony Hopkins' Slipstream still smarts), but the repetitive material hobbles the actor's energies.
Macdonald prays for better things.
Opens at Uptown, Fri., June 19. Rated R. 110 minutes.