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dramedy -- not romantic comedy! -- with Neil Labute-ish dissection of relationships
on August 13, 2014
This is one of those indie movies wrongly billed as a romantic comedy. Um, not so much. There are laugh out loud moments... but you laugh because they're painfully true or because the timing is so spectacularly bad, for the characters. There is awkwardness, confusion, and longing in these characters. They think they know what they want, but they really don't--which is the problem.
It's fairly realistic -- and therefore kind of depressing. It's sort of like Broadcast News set among English major grad students at a liberal arts college -- except with Neil Labute writing some of the scenes! It's a little slow to start, but once it gets going, it's worth watching. It's also not all that dated, surprisingly, in terms of clothes, decor, etc.
It took me about 1/4-1/3 of the way through to get hooked. Once I was, though, I really wanted to see how it was going to turn out. But I'm an ex-film school student, which makes me a more patient viewer; I can tolerate the charms and flaws of indie and experimental film. The average blockbuster movie lover would probably hate this movie. Since I often like the stuff other people hate, I really liked it. I might even watch it again.
The characters are all older grad school twenty-nothings or instructors on the cusp of turning 30. They thought they knew everything, but they're starting to worry that maybe they're not going to do the great things they once thought they would. Their actions and dialogue illustrate dysfunctional relationships--how people often choose or want the person who is worst for them, and how being in a relationship with someone who doesn't reciprocate can make you crazy and turn you into someone you never thought you'd become.
Or, to put it in the words of an old Life In Hell cartoon, it's about dating and mating and hating and berating. So let's bill it as a romantic comedy... WHAT?!? Huge mistake!
Some of the dialogue is a bit precious. Some of the scenes feel kind of "theater workshop." But the ensemble cast is likeable and appealing, even if the characters aren't always. There's Jon Tenney as the self-absorbed English professor/writer Alan, who is a jerk and takes his adoring, acommodating girlfriend (Sherilyn Fenn) for granted. Peter Krause (Six Feet Under) is more of a bit player, whose secret vice is spying on the girl next door who likes to walk around in her underwear with the shades/curtains open. Matt Letscher is the guy who is bright and funny and with a woman totally out of his league who also takes him for granted.
Saffron Burrows is the intelligent, beautiful, unobtainable woman men want to possess but can never truly possess -- or please -- because she's content to be her own cranky, neurotic self. Carla Gugino is engaging as the truly neurotic, down to earth, smart chick who is always alone and also in love with her best friend Danny. Finally, there's Bruce Greenwood as the older "hack" "writing for TV" instructor who no one takes seriously, including himself. He's a good 10-15 years older than these kids. So he's been in and out of enough relationships to be the only one with experienced and perspective. And though he initially seems like a jerk, he turns out to have vulnerabilities and an understanding, forgiving nature.
The dialogue is occasionally too smart for its own good, occasionally too cute -- and other times it is completely brilliant and brutally incisive. Some of the scenes have a painful awkwardness or meanness to them -- people baring their souls and being let down, or letting themselves down. 2/3 of the way through the movie, I was Googling it to see if Neil Labute was involved in any way, that's how brutal some of the dialogue is. Some of the scenes and dialogue have Labute's brutal, politically incorrect honesty about heterosexual relationships. I wish there had been more of that! It feels like the romantic comedy fluff was shoehorned into a movie originally intended to be much darker.
Saffron Burrows doesn't get as much dialogue as the other, more talky, characters. But some of her lines are real zingers, too. Hers is perhaps the most clear-eyed character, facing her own foibles and mistakes without excuses -- sort of the female mirror of Bruce Greenwood's character.
Alan (Jon Tenney) has a brilliantly written total effing melt-down at a party, while he's trying to make his beautiful girlfriend (who he stole from his best friend) jealous by hitting on a younger undergrad. It's guaranteed to offend feminists, but I found myself nodding along in agreement, thinking, "omg. So. Effing. TRUE."
Just as you're thinking Alan is a complete jerk, the scenario flips to reveal his insecurity and loss of control -- which is what drives his obnoxious behavior, of course. It makes him a bit more sympathetic and relateable.
The young Tenney goes for it here, pretty fearlessly. That makes me wonder why his FBI Special Agent Fritz Howard character on The Closer/Major Crimes isn't given as much to do, or allowed as much range. Seeing what he's capable of, here, makes me wonder when TBS will let him run with it like he obviously can -- or, at least, like he *could* twenty years ago. I'll have to watch more stuff he's been in to see the acting range he's shown on other shows or in other movies. Suffice to say I think Tenney was/is woefully under-utilized on The Closer/Major Crimes.
I heard a rumor online that Fritz was going to get his own spin-off from Major Crimes, but I don't think TBS ever officially confirmed it. That would be intriguing. But the problem with police procedural shows is that they are so formulaic: the plots, the dialogue, and what is needed/expected from the actors.
I haven't seen Tenney in much besides The Closer and Major Crimes, and here and there in bit parts of movies or TV shows. But I admire the fearlessness of an actor who isn't afraid to play such an a$$, and who isn't hammy about it. Despite his character's really (really) unlikeable qualities, Tenney brings a vulnerability to the role that almost (but not quite) redeems the character. You still think he's a total jerk, but you understand *why* he's behaving like such a jerk. That doesn't excuse it, but it makes it harder to completely hate him, because Tenney brings a pathos to Alan that I'm not sure another actor could have done. I'm really pleasantly surprised at how good Tenney is here -- I really wasn't expecting that... I was just hoping for more Tenney eye candy. :-)
Most everyone in this is attractive or pretty. If you're a guy who likes curvier chicks, you'll enjoy Carla Gugino's curves and rack. Sherrilyn Fenn is also great -- pretty as always, and likeable as the unassuming, doormat barmaid hooked up Tenney's jerky character, Alan.
I admit I found this via my Roku's search feature. I was searching for Jon Tenney, who I came to really like as FBI Special Agent Fritz Howard on The Closer and, now, on Major Crimes (where he is now Special Operations Bureau Chief of the LAPD as of episode 3x07). Roku search said this was available via Amazon Prime, so I thought I'd watch it.
I was not expecting much, it was free to stream (full screen, not HD), and I wasn't really in the mood for a romance, but it also said it was a comedy. I can see why many people gave this poor ratings -- it is neither a romance nor really a comedy.
This is the second early feature I've seen Tenny in where he plays a real jerk. I saw him in another older movie called Watch It! (from 1993), with Peter Gallagher, just a few months ago, on a locally syndicated station. That movie was about four guys and their messed up friendships with all kinds of effed up one-upmanship and pranks. Tenney's character is a real jerk in Watch It! -- with little of the vulnerability of his character here.