The Movie Waffler New Release Review - Museum Hours | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Museum Hours

A museum guard befriends a Canadian woman visiting her dying sister in Vienna.

Directed by: Jem Cohen
Starring: Mary Margaret O'Hara, Bobby Sommer, Ela Piplits

Johann (Sommer) is a guard at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. He is happy to live a quiet life, having lived one filled with noise as a younger man. He is, however, quite lonely, so when he encounters Anne (O'Hara), a Canadian woman in Vienna to visit her terminally ill sister, he offers her assistance. Alone in a city whose language she doesn't speak, Anne is happy to spend time with Johann, who takes her on trips around the city, showing her a side of Vienna tourists ignore. In the process, his eyes are opened to the little wonders of otherwise mundane city scenes.
"Cinema is life with the dull parts cut out", Hitchcock once famously said. Director Jem Cohen apparently disagrees, as 'Museum Hours' is an exceptionally dull film with all the life taken out of it.
The plot, and its Viennese setting, would have you believe this is a mature reworking of 'Before Sunrise' and for the opening half hour this is exactly what it resembles, albeit without Linklater's verbosity. With Johann letting Anne know he is gay, it removes any romantic dynamic and becomes a more interesting look at a short term friendship. Sommer is an amateur actor, in fact his day job is in Vienna's Film Institute, performing a similar role as his character here, but he's a charming presence with a wonderful drawl that resembles a softer Werner Herzog. O'Hara, known more as a singer and the sister of actress Catherine, is less charismatic, quite wooden at times even, but they form a charming dynamic nonetheless.
Unfortunately, Cohen seems to have little interest in his characters. New to narrative cinema, the director is known more for his portraits of urban areas and in the second act his attention switches away from Johann and Anne, focusing instead on mundane street scenes like a de-stylized Godfrey Reggio. Vienna is one of Europe's most aesthetically pleasing cities but you'd never know it from Cohen's drab portrayal. 
If the kid from 'American Beauty', who filmed a plastic bag blowing in the wind, grew up to be a film-maker, he'd probably make films like 'Museum Hours'. At times, Cohen's story-telling style manages to appear both obtuse and heavy-handed, no mean feat. One cringe-worthy moment sees him cut from the news of a character's death to a shot of dead leaves. There's an arrogance about the way he transitions from his own compositions of mundane Viennese street scenes to the artwork hanging in the museum and this reaches a pretentious nadir in the movie's post-script, where Johann describes these everyday scenes the way a museum tour guide would a piece of art.
Cohen tells us to look closer at life but, by ignoring his human characters, he's ignoring his own advice, much to his film's detriment.

Eric Hillis