Writer’s Block

Two competing novelists, holed up together, in The Tenants.

Movies based on novels can feel drearily bookish, overly tied to schematic plotlines and bonk-you-on-the-head symbolism. But The Tenants (Millennium Films), the first film by a young director named Danny Green, makes bookishness into a virtue. Based on a 1971 novel by Bernard Malamud, this is a movie about the tyranny of the book, the way the compulsion to novelize life can shut us out from the pain and passion of real experience.

Dylan McDermott, virtually unrecognizable from his role as the earnest, clean-cut lawyer on The Practice, plays Harry Lesser, a shaggy, misanthropic Jewish writer who’s finishing his third novel in a deserted tenement in downtown Brooklyn in 1972. Lesser is the last remaining tenant in the burned-out hulk, to the chagrin of his kvetchy landlord (Seymour Cassel), who’s desperate to buy Lesser out and sell the place to developers. But Lesser resists every offer, repeating the phrase that will become his self-destructive mantra: “Not till I finish my book.”

As he sets about doing just that, with the maddening slowness familiar to anyone who’s ever known, or been, a writer, Lesser becomes aware of a second presence somewhere in the building, also tapping away at a manual typewriter. Following the sound down the graffiti-sprayed corridors, he comes upon Willie Spearmint (Snoop Dogg), a young black man who’s been squatting in an empty flat, finishing his own semiautobiographical manuscript by day and slipping out by night to sleep at the apartment of his white girlfriend Irene (Rose Byrne.)

Willie is a study in macho passive-aggression: at once hostile, preening, and needy, he mau-maus Lesser into storing his typewriter at night and, eventually, reading his manuscript. In another scene that should ring bells with the creatively inclined, Willie begs Lesser for honest feedback, then turns on him viciously when he gets it. Soon the two men are locked in an uneasy friendship that’s constantly threatened by Lesser’s white guilt, Willie’s black rage, and their shared desire for Irene.

If this setup sounds overly formulaic, too much of a racial and political lab experiment … well, it kind of is. But there’s something about the no-exit, zero-sum logic of the film’s rivalry that makes this dingy, grim little indie hard to look away from. The film’s politics, unsubtle on their face, soon reveal unsuspected depths. If Willie makes the mistake of racializing every word, gesture, and glance, Lesser has the luxury of ignoring race entirely. (Told by a flirtatious black woman that he “smells white,” he asks what whiteness smells like. Her response: “No smell at all.”) When he critiques Willie’s stories, Lesser’s faintly condescending humanism carries an unmistakable whiff of noblesse oblige, just as the genteel squalor of his apartment looks like opulence next to the real squalor of Willie’s hideout.

The film’s weakest point is Rose Byrne’s Irene, who (less the actress’s fault than the screenwriter’s) comes off as a curious blank, a pillowy-lipped plot device. When Lesser suddenly confesses his love for her midway through the movie, she looks as befuddled as we feel. But the film is otherwise perfectly cast: McDermott, who could easily have played Lesser as a stock nebbish, instead gives him a complex, smoldering inner life, and Snoop Dogg’s Willie Spearmint is simply mesmerizing.

Ever since he loped down an L.A. sidewalk in the video for his 1993 hit “Gin and Juice,” Snoop has been mining his natural talent for making everything—rapping, acting, even being acquitted of murder charges—look easy. He stood out in small roles as a gangster in Baby Boy (2001) and Training Day (2001); and as Huggy Bear, the pimped-out dandy in Starsky and Hutch (2004), he transcended that movie’s profound unfunniness in a performance edged with real menace. As Willie Spearmint, Snoop gives even his most volatile moments an eerie sense of calm—not surprising given that, according to this Blender profile, he was smoking blunts in his trailer during the shoot.

The Tenants, whose monochromatic palette and horror-movie score were clearly influenced by Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), spends the first hour in slow burn, then rapidly builds to a violent and surprising climax. But there’s something endearingly bookish about a movie whose single most frightening shot involves the possibility of an ax being taken to a typewriter.