I went into ‘Neo Ned,’ which was shown on Friday at the Newport Beach Film Festival, not knowing anything about it except the premise as listed in the Festival’s catalog, which describes the movie to be ‘about an Aryan brother who falls for a black woman in a mental institution who thinks she’s Adolf Hitler.’
This could be why I found the movie so disappointing, because it explores that premise for about 10 minutes before deciding it’s really a romantic comedy about something entirely different, which means the film either fails to live up to the original, interesting idea, or merely uses the idea as a way to hide just how uninteresting of a romantic comedy it really is.
As the film begins, we meet Ned (Jeremy Renner), a skinhead neo-Nazi who has been put in a mental institution. He’s pitching a fit by threatening the orderlies with a toaster, something we learn isn’t that unusual for him. In comes a black woman, Rachael (Gabrielle Union), who is also pitching a fit with the orderlies, but later sits quietly, ignoring everyone in the hospital—that is, until she starts speaking German and claiming to be Adolf Hitler.
Ned doesn’t show any hate or outward racism towards Rachael, but actively tries to talk to her (albeit, one question he asks is ‘Why would Hitler be reincarnated as a n—– woman?’). He comes across as much more of a doofus than a racist, and seems to perpetually wear a shit-eating grin for any situation. Rachael puts up with Ned and seems to find his carefree, oblivious nature somewhat likable; when he draws a picture for her of a bunch of bumblebees wearing swastikas and carrying machine guns, she tears off the corner which reads ‘To Rachael, from your friend, Ned’ and puts it by her bed.
Because of his violent outbursts, Ned is discharged from the facility, but sticks around so he can go see Rachael on the hospital’s field trip to the zoo. There, he convinces her to run away with him, which more or less involves them driving away in Ned’s stolen car. They’ve only known each other for a few days, but they soon find themselves in an abandoned gas station during a rainstorm and then doing what people in romance movies usually do in isolated locations during rainstorms.
To say the love story is unconvincing is generous. It becomes clear that Ned only claims to be a Nazi for the attention it gets him, and we later learn that Rachael only made up the Hitler business because she thought she needed to admit herself into the hospital and needed to convince them she had a problem. Thus, they really aren’t that incompatible at all, and the movie then becomes more about how Ned and Rachael will try to find a normal life together. Except for one amusing scene where Ned wears a Nazi T-shirt while shopping with Rachael in a grocery store, that aspect of their forbidden love is pretty much forgotten after that point.
That doesn’t mean the film takes a turn for the better. Ned is a perpetual slacker, and only gets a job as a chef at Rachael’s insistence, but jumps on the first opportunity to skip work and go to a party, leaving an obscene message for his boss spelled out in French fries. We meet Ned’s mother, who is addicted to appearing on daytime talk shows and is eager to use Ned and Rachael’s relationship as the perfect gimmick to get on another one. The problem is, virtually all of these plot points are treated as comedy, things that we are supposed to laugh with Ned about, as if we’re supposed to identify with him because he’s so charming and goofy. I didn’t buy it. Rachael, on the other hand, is responsible and articulate, and I was utterly confused as to why she stuck with Ned.
The film takes a sudden turn for the dramatic and violent at the end, which feels very out of place, and it seems like a convenient way to set up a happy ending. To be sure, it’s not a happy ending in the usual Hollywood sense, but the setup for it is a little too contrived, especially given some unexplained plot holes. The end result is that the film essentially tries to be about a bull-headed but likable guy and a somewhat disturbed girl, but it doesn’t have any place interesting to take them once they meet.
I haven’t said anything about the other aspects of the movie, such as the acting, but for the most part it’s quite good. Renner succeeds at making Ned into a charming and sympathetic character (and in the Q-&-A after the film, where Renner and director Van Fischer were present, he said that that was exactly his intent), and Union is most compelling in the scenes where she has to explore the disturbed side of her character. But because the tone of the movie is so happy-go-lucky, they can’t make the film as compelling as it should be—not even in a movie about a Nazi and a black woman in love.