Ladies and gentlemen, we are pleased to present Julie and Jack! The directorial debut of James Nguyen, who would later helm the b-movie masterpiece Birdemic. This one has everything you would expect from Nguyen, from an aimless love story to endless corporate sales meetings. Not to mention costumes like these.
Jack Livingstone (Justin Kunkle) is a down on his luck computer chip salesman struggling to meet his quotas. His boss nags him about his poor performance and constantly compares him to his much more successful coworker, Bill Templeton (Lee Boren). This is truly cinematic material, folks. Jack’s character is boring and whiny, and Kunkle doesn’t know how to change the bland expression on his face. Personally, I wish this movie were about Bill – the successful salesman who gets to talk football with his boss. I suspect there’s a lot more to this character than the movie lets on.
Jack is barely in frame for the duration of this scene with Bill. It’s obvious who the real star is.
Jack’s best friend Mark (Will Springhorn) suggests he try this online dating site to meet a woman, and Jack hesitantly agrees. Since he’s a computer chip salesman, his online handle is chipman – because rather than a personality, his character is nothing more than the job he has. He begins exchanging online messages with Lady Renegade, who turns out to be the titular Julie (Jenn Gotzon). When they finally decide to meet in person, there’s an instant, overexposed connection between the two of them.
Hi babe! I have something for y- Oh wait, wrong movie.
From here we get to watch the minutia of Jack and Julie’s developing relationship as they date over the next three months, and it’s so dull that I begin to wonder just what Bill is up to. I bet he’s a secret agent or something, saving the world while we’re stuck watching this hokey dating crap. Life gets better for Jack; now that he has a girlfriend he starts making more sales at work. But Julie seems very guarded around him, and she won’t let the relationship get physical in any way. She refuses to reveal anything personal about herself, other than the university she went to.
Now here’s the kicker – it turns out Julie and Jack haven’t even met. In a shocking turn of events, we learn that they’ve been dating online through a virtual reality simulator this whole time. This explains Jack’s frustration with their relationship; he’s been pushing for a meeting in the real world. One day Jack pushes a little too hard though, and Julie gets frustrated and breaks things off. This shouldn’t be a big deal to Jack since they don’t actually know each other.
This is how he’s really looked the entire time.
Even though Julie requested they stop seeing each other, Jack creepily uses a series of stalker techniques to track his virtual reality dream girl down. He speaks to her professor from back in college, who sends him to her old workplace, a start-up that was acquired by a larger corporation for one hundred million dollars (sound familiar?). It turns out Julie was some kind of computer programming genius. His search becomes a constant chain from one person to the next, and in each case we’re treated to a useless flashback sequence featuring some memory of Julie. He even interviews her ex-boyfriend along the way.
‘Hey man, help me track down the girl who broke your heart?’ Stay classy, Jack.
At the end of it all, Jack finally makes his way to Julie’s childhood home and meets her parents. Julie’s mother, played by Tippi Hedren for some reason, brings the next plot twist. Julie passed away years ago from a brain tumor. Geeze. For a girl with so many acquaintances, it’s a bit odd that none of them knew she had died. Jack spoke to her teachers, her co-workers, and some of her best friends, and they were all clueless. It’s as if some greater power wanted the information to be held back until the most dramatic moment possible.
But wait – if Julie is dead, how has Jack been speaking to her all this time? Is it just a fat hairy man using her likeness on the computer? Nope. Julie programmed her brain into a virtual dating site before she died. I have no idea why she did that, but she did. Jack now faces the tough decision that he can’t be with a girl who isn’t real. I think we’re supposed to tear up here.
In the end, thanks to a new-found confidence from his relationship with a software program, Jack wins the Salesman of the Quarter Award, a meaningless plaque that they give out four times a year. Since Jack’s job is the only trait established about his character, I guess winning the award means everything. He even stands up and gives a speech. I was just disappointed because Bill clearly deserves it more.
He’s the only actor who bothers to express any emotion.
Nguyen, sincerely, outdoes himself here with his use of storytelling techniques. He’s pulled out all the stops with the adept, albeit obvious, inclusion of foreshadowing in this movie! That’s right, not only is there a plot that develops (well, sort of), but among all the terrible dialogue we get hints throughout the movie that there’s more to Julie than what we’re shown. When Julie first meets Jack, for example, she tells him that she basically lives inside her computer. I almost want to call this clever, by Nguyen standards.
Julie and Jack VS Birdemic
There’s one thing that’s obvious – Nguyen has created a formula and he’s hell-bent on sticking to it. A huge percentage of the ideas in Julie and Jack were later recycled and used in his third film, Birdemic. Let’s take a look at some now. First, we have a genuine, honest protagonist who walks incredibly slow and works as a sales agent. In Birdemic, Rod (Alan Baugh) sells software for NCT Software while Jack sells hardware for Stellachip Corporation. Both protagonists make terrible sales deals – Rod gives unnecessary ‘50% discounts’ and Jack throws in a ‘ticket to Vegas’ to entice his customers.
There’s just no greater salesman than Bill, though.
Don’t worry, the connections don’t end there! Both Jack and Rod have a best friend who is obsessed with sex. When he’s not in bed with a woman, Mark constantly humps at the air while Birdemic‘s Rick (Danny Webber) lives by the mantra “a day without sex is a day wasted.” The contrast between the horny best friend and the nice-guy protagonist is the best – and only – strategy Nguyen has come up with so far to make his protagonists likable. If he’s not a douche like his friends are, he must be a good person, right?
As a man who’s clearly a Hitchcock fan, Nguyen pays tribute to the respected director by casting himself in his own films. It’s thrilling to watch him struggle to spit out his own dialogue in Julie and Jack. He must have discovered he can’t act though, since he doesn’t take on a speaking role in Birdemic, much to my dismay. Can you imagine if he had played the wigged idiot who hears a mountain lion? Such a wasted opportunity.
“I gotta go cup of coffee.”
Speaking of casting, actress Patsy van Ettinger appears in both films as a main character’s mother, and she second guesses her lines mid-take the same way every time. Both movies contain endless driving and parking sequences and at some point, a woman is compared to a Ferrari.
And of course, in both films the protagonists meet a nice girl who is way out of their league, and as an audience we get to watch the guy court the girl in painstaking real time. During this period everything goes perfectly as the couple make a true connection. Actually, while Julie and Jack get to know one another, Julie often discusses nature; the trees, the cliffs and the environment in general, and how much she loves the world around her. This isn’t a far cry from the global warming warning Birdemic tries to shove down our throats.
About halfway through each film, the courtship plot is replaced with a jarring turn of events that puts their relationship at risk. In Birdemic, it’s the bird attack, and in Julie and Jack, it’s the virtual reality reveal.
Lastly, there’s a scene in both films where a corporation is bought out by another company, for a conveniently round number, and everyone claps to celebrate. Where most filmmakers learn and get better with experience, Nguyen appears to lose coherence with each film he makes, because the clapping scenes in Julie and Jack are much more reasonable than the ones in Birdemic.
So there are a lot of connections between the two films, but which is the better picture? Well, what we have are two movies with the same formula. It’s the same story twice, and they say practice makes perfect. With Birdemic, Nguyen should have learned from the failings of Julie and Jack, right? Yet the latter film is somehow worse in almost every way. The driving scenes are longer, the elapsed clapping time is endless, and sound mix is somehow less audible than Julie and Jack‘s (which just doesn’t seem possible). Nguyen seems to be getting even more terrible with each project.
Julie and Jack VS The Room
Allow me to take this one step further. While watching the film I noticed Julie and Jack has a lot in common with Tommy Wiseaus’ The Room as well. In both films, we have a protagonist whose name begins with ‘J’ (Johnny and Jack). The J’s both have a best friend named Mark who is considerably more successful with women than they are. The Mark’s are jerks who don’t treat their so-called best friends very well. The Room and Julie and Jack are both set in San Francisco and feature iconic images such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, and a San Franciscan streetcar. Both films heavily rely on the worn-out notion that giving a woman roses is the most romantic gesture in the universe. Both films feature a scene where characters are needlessly dressed in tuxes. They were both released in 2003. The similarities are endless. Is it a coincidence that these two films share so much in common? Maybe Nguyen and Tommy Wiseau are actually the same person? I wish that were the case, but the answer is much simpler.
All bad movies are alike in some way, simply because they are the product of amateur filmmakers who rely on the same tired cliches and visual cues to tell their terrible stories.