‘Lapsis’ Review: Skewering the Gig Economy
There’s a scene in Donnie Darko where a high school teacher (Drew Barrymore) suggests the phrase ‘cellar door’ might be the most beautiful combination of words in the English language. I doubt that Lapsis director Noah Hutton would presume the same about the combo ‘lapsis beeftech’, which repeats throughout his film, and yet this bizarre phrase has an odd magic of its own. It’s been a week since I’ve watched it and these words, a name that bears the load of the script’s mysteries, has not left my mind since. The interplay between the gracefully mysterious ‘lapsis’ with the patently obnoxious ‘beeftech’ neatly sums up Hutton’s ethos. This sci-fi satire of the gig economy is at once elegant and crude, grounded and over the top, it’s a contradiction like the quantum paradoxes it portrays and the dialectic between humanism and techno-capitalism at its core. It also serves as a neat legend for the film’s trajectory: the ambitious plate-spinning of the first half comes crashing down with a thud in the second, but the journey there is just intriguing enough to be worth it.
At the heart of Hutton’s dystopia is CBLR, a company using a gig-economy app, not unlike Uber, to contract out the work of dragging its cables across miles of trails and forests to connect a ‘quantum computing network’. We follow Ray Tincelli, played by Dean Imperial with a distinct Tony Soprano swagger, a man looking for a way to pay the exorbitant costs of his brother’s medical treatment. Imperial might not have Gandolfini’s range, but he’s similarly attuned to pulling sensitivity from beneath a tough outer-boroughs exterior. Driven by the love for his brother, Ray signs up to become a ‘cabler’ for the company and opts to apply through a shady backdoor process to guarantee the gig. And so logging in for his first assignment, we are finally introduced to “lapsis beeftech”— a screen name given to Ray, that he suspects may belong to someone else.
Hutton’s thesis is clear from the opening shot which places us at a cabling orientation: a bored employee wheels-in a 90’s television cart to play a cheesy corporate training video resembling the 7 ½ Floor introduction from Being John Malkovich. The company rep struggles to get the thing to play, twiddling with the analog connectors after finally smacking the TV to get the image to show. The shambolic display forms a neat juxtaposition with the ostensibly infinite possibilities of quantum computing. This pessimism towards a failed technological promise recurs throughout, presented most explicitly through the shoddy construction and squeaky wheels of the cable caddy that Ray lugs on his routes. The cables may connect to sophisticated quantum cubes that hum like Kubrick’s obelisk, but the process of dragging them across their routes is as rinky-dink as it gets. When it comes to surveilling workers, restricting their breaks, or penalizing them, the technology is the height of sophistication, but any improvements to make the work easier are out of bounds even at the cost of efficiency.
Sadly, the script doesn’t trust us to put two and two together, and so we are introduced to Anna (Madeline Wise), another cabler who serves to educate the somewhat naive audience surrogate Ray about the inequities of the gig economy. This tendency towards direct exposition can be partially explained by Hutton’s documentary background; Lapsis is his first narrative feature after a string of social issue docs, but Anna’s lectures come off as unnecessary here and gum up the works. Further dragging down the plot is the focus on Ray’s brother’s condition: ‘Omnia’ — a type of chronic fatigue disorder. This disease which is portrayed as a sleepy ennui, verging on a parody of slackerdom, is a sardonic layer too far. Though there are hints that the condition is related to quantum computers, the through line that suggests the entire condition is a con onto itself dilutes Lapsis’ satirical punch. Hutton’s documentary More To Live For about three individuals needing a bone marrow transplant shows that his concerns about healthcare inequity are far from superficial, and so having a fake condition to mirror right-wing concern trolling about insurance fraud here is downright perplexing.
By the time we unravel the mysteries of ‘lapsis beeftech’, a name whose repetitions grow funnier by the hushed, he who shall not be named, severity it invokes, the adventurous undertones of the film’s first half have grown weary, bogged down by exposition and an oddly inserted workers’ revolt to thrust positive spin on things. Luckily the last trick up Hutton’s sleeve, which I won’t spoil here, closes the film by quietly reiterating some of its larger class themes. Overlooking some of the flaws of the tail-end, Lapsis brings a wry bit of worldbuilding that bulks the trend of easy Trump-era satire targets in favor of a robust broadside against the looming encroachments of the gig-economy. Just last November, California passed Prop. 22, which bypassed state law to give Uber and Lyft the leeway to deprive their drivers of worker’s rights. Meanwhile, the viability of remote work through the pandemic has no doubt given more traditional companies ideas about converting their employees into gig workers of another kind. Through its bizarre constructions, Lapsis isn’t as much warning about an incoming future, but a desperate alarm about our nightmarish now.
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