L'amour, à la Indie: Falling in (and Out) of Love at FLIFF
The 27th-annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival wraps up November 11 with its awards party at 7:30 p.m. at the Copacabana Supper Club in Fort Lauderdale. Over the past few weeks, local film fanatics have taken in about 200 foreign, documentary, short, and indie films. For this last full week of festing, FLIFF offers three romantic comedies that explore young people in and out of love, with varying degrees of success.
The winning comedy Stuck explores the idea that, as one character in the film puts it, "It's easier to have sex with a stranger than converse with one." A deconstruction of a one-stand night and its aftermath, Stuck begins in the middle of the story, as Holly's (Madeline Zima) morning-after "walk of shame" is interrupted when she realizes she needs a ride to retrieve her car, still parked at the club where she picked up Guy (Joel David Moore, of Avatar) the night before. So it's back up to his apartment, where he agrees to drive her back, both parties succumbing to a hazy postcoital hangover.
Sure enough, their awkward Sunday-morning drive is interrupted by traffic congestion of apocalyptic proportions — hundreds of cars parked in every direction on the frozen Los Angeles highway system for reasons unknown. Holly and Guy share the roadways with a city symphony of blaring car horns, eclectic stereo emissions, and bitchy motorists; filmmaker Stuart Acher's airborne camera surveys the panoply.
Right away, with his numerous swirling crane shots, tracking shots, and generous 2:35:1 aspect ratio, Acher reveals himself to be an ambitious visual stylist, even if, as a storyteller, the traffic-jam conceit is a transparently convenient contrivance to keep the one-night lovebirds together.
No matter — Stuck takes a fascinating and original route to arrive at a familiar rom-com destination. As Holly and Guy are forced to converse, they can't help but piece together the previous evening's activities, presented to us in reverse chronological order: first the fornication, then a little later the foreplay, then the decision outside the club, the dancing, the chance meeting, and so forth. As the scenes proceed, questions in one segment will be answered in the next. Stuck plays out like an intriguing mystery in which the result is known but the motives propel us to keep watching, to anticipate the Memento device in which the characters' curious actions in the flashbacks suddenly make perfect sense.
Stuck does not disappoint in its gradual revelations of bombshells, and it does so while respecting both characters, whose points of view we adopt in equal measure during the flashbacks. Both are conflicted and complex — stuck in life as well as in an automobile, their actions last night atypical for both of them.
Casting is crucial in a project like this, because obnoxious performances could make us hate characters who, at one point or another, already seem to hate themselves and each other. But Moore and Zima have wonderful, organic chemistry, even when Guy and Holly have none. Acher's dialogue does, from time to time, sound awfully written, but Moore and Zima sell it with laudable realism. Their connection is palpable and their circuitous conversations believable, whether they're discussing the nature of the jammed traffic, the cultural obsession with texting, or the faces Guy makes when he orgasms. The latter discussion could have come off as crude but, instead, is actually charming — one of the film's many little miracles in the context of a romantic-comedy genre that is all too often stuck in neutral.
It's hard to totally trash a film whose soundtrack features great tunes by Standard Fare, Architecture in Helsinki, the Explorers Club, and other bands tailor-made for a mixtape. A virtually nonstop playlist of pleasant indie pop provides the aural pulse in The Kitchen, and some viewers will undoubtedly wish they could block out the foreground noise, put on some headphones, and dance themselves to sleep.
This ensemble comedy is marketed, inaccurately, as a film "set entirely in a kitchen." The movie is not nearly so inventive or so claustrophobic. It is, however, set solely in the apartment of Jennifer — played by Laura Prepon, the Amazonian redhead from That '70s Show, now blond — on her 30th birthday. Her friends have arranged a massive party, one that is prematurely spoiled by boyfriend Paul's (Bryan Greenberg) admission that he has been cheating on her.
This sets into motion a comic string of broken hearts, drunken makeouts, toppled cakes, and twisted ankles as more than a dozen characters vie for screen time. Only a fraction of them make an impression over the 78-minute duration. It's funny in brief spurts of inspiration, but the dialogue has that cutesy, self-effacingly clever Gilmore Girls bounce that works best in small(-screen) doses. Worse, the writer and director are both men whose female characters could use some feminist polishing: The women in this movie are invariably needy, guilty, oblivious, or knocked-up, with the guys positioned as jilted romantics or unpunished bastards.
She Wants Me
Making a Judd Apatow movie is harder than it looks. Just ask writer/director Rob Margolies, whose debut feature, She Wants Me, reimagines Annie Hall as filtered through the vulgar-sweet Apatovian cinemascape. In this latest paean to the schlubby nice guy, Josh Gad plays Sam, a neurotic, pudgy screenwriter in love with Sammy, his preternaturally hot girlfriend, played by Kristen Ruhlin. They share a house in Los Angeles, where Sammy is an aspiring actress who is promised a leading, career-making role in Sam's next indie film. Two problems threaten their perfect dynamic: the mainstream pop starlet (Hilary Duff) who has expressed interest in Sammy's role and the re-emergence of Sammy's ex-husband, John (Johnny Messner), a beefcake surgeon who, in one of the film's most inexplicable plot turns, ends up crashing with Sam and Sammy.
She Wants Me's exposition is delivered in a dizzying procession of twee affectations: green screens, split screens, animation, on-screen text, and the kind of protracted voice-over narration Margolies leans on like a crutch. The quirk is so witless and incessant that when the movie finally eschews the film-school stylization and gains the confidence to let its characters breathe, it begins to grow on you a little. Gad is an affable performer, and he plays the flustered doormat well. You root for him the way you root for the runt of the litter to keep up with the other pups. When his relationship with Sammy hits the breaking point, the conversation and its aftermath feel real — and quietly devastating. There's also a funny recurring conceit in which John, who has made himself at home in his ex-wife's abode, seems to wear fewer articles of clothing every time we see him.
But these are the only moments of honesty and originality in Margolies' programmatic screenplay. The film is a Goodwill store of comic hand-me-downs, a repository of stereotypes, from Sam's focus-grouped cadre of multicultural chums — note the token black guy and token Asian guy — to an excruciatingly ageist scene at Sam's family home, where his grandmother is a wacky, senile coot and his grandfather is introduced having urinated himself in a recliner.
But the film's ultimate downfall is its solipsism, typical of first-time filmmakers. In a story that reeks with the stench of insulated autobiography, She Wants Me takes the "write what you know" mantra as literally as possible, and it appears that all Margolies knows are other, better movies. When his onscreen surrogate Sam pitches his latest screenplay to Hilary Duff's character, he describes it as a mix of Larry David and, inevitably, Judd Apatow — two writers whose creativity is sorely absent in Margolies.
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