11 May 2009

STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE: AN UNHAPPY SUBURBAN FAMI-

It must be fairly important that Lymelife takes place in 1979, because a whole lot of energy is expended very early in the movie to make certain we understand where we are in time. And at the same time, it cannot be at all important that Lymelife takes place in 1979, because the filmmaking brothers Derick and Steven Martini manage to screw up many of the details of what life in that far-gone year must have been life, including the presumably large detail that the Falklands War was fought in the spring of 1982. On the other hand, the Martinis indicate that large numbers of American troops served in that conflict between Argentina and Great Britain, so perhaps the Falkland Islands are just a terrific blind spot for them.

The reason, so far as I can tell, for the time period is that it was the era of the Great Lyme Disease Epidemic, and it was desirable to use lyme disease, with its bouquet of disorienting neurological symptoms, as a metaphor for the hellish life of a suburb-dweller. Only one person in the movie actually suffers from Lyme disease, and he's not even particularly central to the plot, but the idea of Lyme disease hangs heavily over the whole picture, a quick signifier of how life in the verdant forests can kill you goddamn dead, and that would never happen in Queens (I am, in fairness, being much snippier than the film's real theme deserves).

So: our protagonist - "hero" would be taking it too far - is 15-year-old Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), the younger son of Mickey (Alec Baldwin) and Brenda (Jill Hennessy), a couple whose marriage has become increasingly soul-draining ever since they left New York, years ago, to pursue Mickey's dream of making his fortune developing subdivisions of tract homes on Long Island. As the movie begins, Bartlettown has just opened for business, and Scott is far more worried about impressing the cute neighbor girl Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts) than observing the delicate chemistry between his parents grow increasingly corrosive. In the meantime, Adrianna's dad Charlie (Timothy Hutton) slips further and further into a delusional, sub-functional state brought on by a chance deer tick once upon a hunting trip with Mickey, while Adrianna's mom and Charlie's increasingly impatient wife Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) slips further and further into Mickey's - her boss's - pants.

I would not further give away the plot, since there is not much more plot than that to give away. Lymelife is a film that is content to establish a situation and watch as that situation plays out over a span of eight or nine months, as human beings interact with each other and their relationships change, but nothing dramatic exactly happens. It's very indie like that, and I don't mean "indie" as a pejorative, exactly, though I definitely don't mean it as a compliment.

If there was one subgenre that I could consign to the flames of Movie Hell, it would unhesitatingly be the Suburban Angst Film, where a family disintegrates because it is divided between the sensitive miserable people who hate living in a facsimile of reality, and the banal contented people (who are, it must be noted, still sad) who just want their piece of the American Dream, corrupted though it be in this suburban form. Think about how many movies I just included in that description. But what I hate about this form so much, isn't that it's tired. My oft-stated belief is that any cliché can be made to sing, if treated properly by a gifted creative team. What I hate is that the handful of good movies of this kind don't do much besides point out that yes, the suburbs suck; and the bad ones are among the most flat-out irritating movies I can name, even if they're not necessarily the "worst".

Lymelife is not one of the good ones, although it would be so much easier for it to be so much worse: the Martinis have never made a film before (only Derick is credited as director, but I strongly suspect that there's a Coen brothers situation going on here, excepting that Blood Simple didn't kind of suck), and they honestly don't make too many mistakes that I can tell. They rely far too much on what I came to think of as carpet-bombing with insert shots, using rhythmically-timed cuts to five or six or twelve images of some object or another that's meant to comment upon the action, I presume, but is just confusing instead. And I already mentioned that their grasp on recent history is a touch on the sloppy side. Oh, and the film (like all films set for no good reason in the '70s and '80s) boasts a soundtrack that's just pornographic with the period signifiers, although I don't know that we can blame the brothers for that.

But what they have done, and well, is provide space for a flock of actors to go to town. Rory has always been my favorite of the Culkins (his elder brother Kieran appears as Scott's brother Jim in what would be naught but an extended cameo, if not for the stunt-casting), and his performance as Scott, a confused and needy and horny teen who's very grateful to lash out at anyone who can plausibly shoulder the blame for what is obviously not a good life, is a perfect case study in why that should be the case. Alec Baldwin continues to prove himself one of our great character actors in a role that lets him be his trademark status-grubbing jackass, while also implying great depths of sadness that command our pity just when the story has led us to believe that Mickey is a worthless shitpile. The best in show, however, is Timothy Hutton, playing a role that is almost completely inflexible - Charlie is nothing more than a walking metaphor - and giving that role actual human depth, letting the audience see in his eyes the suffering behind the twitches and writerly flourishes. It's a great performance that begs the question of where he's been all these years; and the answer is, hiding in plain sight, plugging away in little roles in small movies, and as I look at the titles, I can remember him. But damn me if I thought he had this performance in him.

Now, I'm not one to give a film a pass just because it has good acting. But it can certainly help, and for the most part Lymelife is functionally competent and barely familiar enough to be dull. There are a few huge missteps - and unfortunately for the movie, one of those comes at the very end of the film, in a mechanically edgy finale that wraps up nothing and stops the story without bringing it to a close - but even if the Martinis, or just Derick, aren't supple visual thinkers, they aren't awful. Plenty of first-time indie filmmakers with a Sundance-pedigreed debut can't make the same claim. So no, Lymelife isn't successful, but I'm willing to say that mediocrity is a different thing than failure in this case.

6/10

3 comments:

BABY GIGOLO said...

I think the best Suburban Agnst Film to date is "Revolutionary Road," because it's not about how the characters are so desitined to stand out and be something other than they are, but that they wouldn't be happy anywhere, even if they did all the things they dreamed about. They just use it as an excuse to bitch and moan about what they don't have. American Beauty, on the other hand, is so snarky, so cold, so cliche, so calculating, and so implausible, that even if we truly knew what the characters did want, (the movie tries to give them something to do, but none of it is in the least bit believable), it still wouldn't matter, 'cause they're so thinly drawn.

Diego said...

The best portrayal of the Falklands (or Malvinas) War that I've seen, treated tangentially yet ever present, can be found in This is England, which as I posted elsewhere remains the scariest movie I've ever seen in my life. We do have Blessed by Fire from the latin american viewpoint as well, but that's a war movie.

Tim said...

I just need to say how happy it makes me that somebody else has seen This Is England.