Film: Better Watch ‘Saul’

‘Better Call Saul’ is noir for our times

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Bob Odenkirk’s smiling Saul hides a dark past (and future).

Born Jimmy McGill, Saul was a short-con artist and petty criminal who got a quick degree at a South Pacific law school. As “Saul Goodman,” he became the kind of lawyer that makes other lawyers shudder, recruiting clients with billboards and TV commercials.

Now McGill is cowering in black-and-white angst under the name Gene Tacovic, managing a Cinnabon at an Omaha mall. Under any name, he’s a person of interest to the feds and the Aryan Brotherhood.

As season four of Better Call Saul begins, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) keels over from the anxiety of that film noir state of panic described by Kirk Douglas in Out of the Past (1947): “You won’t be able to answer a phone or open a door without thinking, ‘This is it.’” In flashbacks, the once and future lawyer looks for temporary grifts, such as improving a dying cell-phone store’s business by emphasizing the burner phones on sale.

Every episode seems like a calling card for some aspiring director. In this prequel to Breaking Bad, the craft in the visuals shows, but the anxiety behind that craft doesn’t. There’s a sense of room and time in every episode.

And, since the malign Walter White hasn’t yet entered the picture, there is time to study the other characters who were going to wish they never met Jimmy. The new season emphasizes the betrayal of Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s sometimes law partner and lover; whatever causes their ultimate separation, this will be Jimmy’s worst self-inflicted loss.

Questions that seemed once to mean so much to filmmakers, about whether a character is good or evil, are actually immaterial compared to a more important matter: whether a character is competent or inept.

Season four of ‘Better Call Saul’ is now streaming on Amazon Prime and AMC.

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