You can’t credit Aki Kaurismki for inventing deadpan screen humor—everybody from Buster Keaton to the Czech New Wave employed it long before he picked up a camera. But for many folks, the Finnish cinaste is the patron saint of the po-faced punch line. Except for Jim Jarmusch (who graced Kaurismki’s 1989 breakthrough, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, with a killer cameo), nobody has furthered the cause of minimalist absurdism in contemporary movies more; the director uses an actor’s blank stare as effectively as John Cage uses empty spaces between notes. The risk of keeping everything so slow and low, however, can register as simply lethargic, which is exactly what happens in Kaurismki’s latest feature. His fondness for hangdog heroes and Helsinki’s bleak landscapes is in full force, but the director’s ability to draw out irony or purpose from nothingness is nowhere to be found.
The setup favors noir over farce: A down-and-out security guard (Hyytiinen) is befriended by a mysterious blond (Jrvenhelmi). Naturally, the femme fatale isn’t what she seems, and before long, gangsters and stolen jewelry are thrown into the mix. All the while, the dope passively accepts whatever bad luck comes his way, supposedly due to good ol’ urban existential angst. Except there’s little to suggest why this expressionless loser chooses the path of no resistance, or how he’s emblematic of some bigger picture; even the character’s creator seems unsure. Either as a dry comedy or a social allegory, Lights in the Dusk is anemic. (Now playing; IFC Center.) — David Fear