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Under the Radar: Mike Binder’s The Search for John Gissing

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The story behind the final release of writer/director Mike Binder’s charming corporate culture clash comedy The Search for John Gissing seven years after its production is nearly as entertaining, surprising, amusing, and filled with enough dubious events to rival the plot of the film itself.

After using the benefit of a British tax break to shoot overseas and scraping up enough money between his own savings and that of supportive family and friends, Binder filmed Gissing in early 2001 entirely “on the cheap,” as he told Cinematical’s James Rocchi. Yet, despite drawing raves from audience members and inclusions into several film festivals around the globe, he was never able to find a fair studio offer, admitting that, “the only deals we could get were from people who wanted to own it. Forever. For doing nothing.”

Understandably finding it unacceptable, Binder promptly moved on to other projects, including HBO’s The Mind of the Married Man, his critical breakout Joan Allen and Kevin Costner vehicle The Upside of Anger, the straight-to-DVD, Preston Sturges meets Jerry Maguire Ben Affleck comedy Man About Town, and the little-seen, entirely underrated Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler post 9/11 buddy film Reign Over Me.

However, while Gissing remained on the back burner for Binder who even at one point “re-wrote the whole script… called… The Multinationals,” with the intention of filming it again, the search for the original John Gissing film remained a constant obsession for its fiercely loyal, determined, and unwavering fans. While Binder grants that the devotees consisted of “primarily absolute Rickman fans” (among which he includes himself), an online petition was begun to force the film’s release, ultimately gathering 3,630 signatures and fans flew from across not only the U.S. but England as well to see the film and Binder’s Q&A when Gissing was included “as a last minute thing” at the Westwood International Film Festival. Touched by their passion, Binder took down the mailing information of forty attendees and sent them each a burned copy of the DVD, as Cinematical reports.

Inspired, finally he decided to follow through on his goal “to put together a site to sell my movies,” which he admits was “more work than I thought it was going to be… there’s a new obstacle every day.” However, via his experiment to eventually create “a big-ass pipeline going right through the ground to people that want to buy my movies,” he found an unlikely DVD maker through an adult entertainment DVD company “looking to go letimate.” Eventually the disc earned its release, with no studio input — a Binder film (made by Mike and produced by his brother Jack) on a Binder website to a Binder audience. After stumbling on the DVD at a local video store, I found myself becoming quite the Gissing fan in my own right.

To be fair, I’ve been a Binder fan without realizing it since tagging along with my parents to see the Big Chill-like, sunny Indian Summer in the early '90s (which he wrote and directed) but ever since Upside of Anger, I’ve made a special effort to seek out his work. In that film, he became one of those unique and admirable (yet far too few) males to accurately portray women as complicated and fully realized characters and it was thrilling to witness a movie with such a tremendous and overwhelmingly female cast wherein the women weren’t obsessed with shopping or mani/pedis. Yet, more than that, he’s equally — and obviously given his gender — probably even more so at home in the world of the male-dominated concrete jungle where Art of War seems to be the post-MBA manual. It’s a subject he keeps returning to again and again — whether it plays a dominant role as it did in Man About Town or a more subtle one with Don Cheadle’s character's work struggles in Reign Over Me.

And again, international business is the agenda of the day in The Search for John Gissing, yet to just say it’s a business comedy would be to do it an immense disservice. It begins as a far better hodgepodge of Neil Simon’s Out-of-Towners and the comedies of the modern day French master Francis Veber (The Valet, The Closet, The Dinner Game) with a little of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment thrown in for good measure, which Binder admits indeed helped inspire the office building set decoration.

When Compu-Corp employee Matthew Barnes (Binder) and his wife Linda (Janeane Garofalo) arrive in London, they assume it’ll be their next temporary landing place in a series of buy-outs, mergers that go along with being one spoke in the wheel of his employer’s international conglomerate company. However, from the moment their feet touch cement at Heathrow Airport, anything and everything goes wrong as all the plans made for the couple’s arrival by Matthew’s same-level London colleague John Gissing (Alan Rickman) fall through. Soon they begin to wonder if their trip is being sabotaged on purpose by Mr. Gissing himself. And the first forty minutes of the film blends the misunderstandings and mistaken identities found in not only Veber but also British sex farces to great effect as the couple find themselves in situations one has to see to believe. I’d reveal more about exactly what and whom the Americans encounter but hesitate to do so as by even expanding on the character descriptions, I’d be killing several of the film’s jokes before one even inserted the disc into their DVD player.

However, once Rickman and Binder share screen time, it morphs first from a chess match of one-upmanship into thematically similar territory of the freewheeling buddy movie adventure he did so well in Reign Over Me. Except in the case of Gissing, the tears come from laughter this time instead of sadness and we absolutely can’t get enough of Rickman as we’ve never seen him before. As a Steve Martin-like “wild and crazy guy,” Binder notes that contrary to his fear that Rickman was “gonna be tough; he seems kind of cranky and cantankerous and a bit curmudgeonly in the meetings,” he was instead the “warmest, sweetest gentlemen I’d ever worked with in my life,” adding that he believes Rickman “was just dying to tear up the scenery and the furniture.” And after viewing it, I wouldn’t hesitate to agree and despite my fondness for Rickman as a serious actor (despite being the source of my childhood nightmares after I watched Die Hard with my older brother while still in grade school), I would honestly love to see him offered more comedic work to show the wise-cracking, pratfall friendly side of Harry Potter’s Severus Snape.

With a great turn by the always hysterical Janeane Garofalo who makes a perfect bantering partner for Binder, Gissing is one of those word-of-mouth films sure to get one phoning others as soon as it’s over. Filled with inventive jokes about the culture clash to be found when Americans travel abroad even to a country that speaks our language, the award-winning The Search For John Gissing also contains priceless bits sure to attract an even wider international base as the finale involves a German group of buyers and a French antique-chair obsessed superior to Barnes and Gissing who receives his comeuppance in a decidedly unexpected way.

And although given the background of the film, it’s easy to forgive the skimpy extras (containing outtakes and deleted scenes), one can’t help but wonder, given its cinematic plot-worthy backstory, if perhaps in the future Binder won’t do something with it down the road. Whether he chooses to make an insider Hollywood satire (although after the lackluster Tropic Thunder – man, do we have enough of those) or in its next DVD release, turn Gissing into a double-disc special feature heavy version, one thing is for certain — namely, you can guess you’ll find it via Binder’s own “big ass pipeline,” online, which may inspire more independent filmmakers to reach prospective audiences down the road.

Still, in the effort not to inspire yet another petition to plead with him to reinvent a perfectly good DVD, I must say that Binder’s movie is even more entertaining than the seven year odyssey to its release. Or in the spirit of brevity to match the setting of the film’s business world — I’d urge you to begin The Search for John Gissing at your earliest convenience. Thank you for your time and there will be a meeting about it in the morning. And as I’m sure Matthew Barnes would warn — just make sure you don’t ask John Gissing to call you with the details.

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