Hope Davis

The Daytrippers (1996, Greg Mottola)

There are two profoundly well-directed scenes in the third act of The Daytrippers, including the last one, so you really want to give what you can of it a pass. Daytrippers is very straightforward, even through the various complexities of the third act, but just because Mottola (who wrote as well as directed) knows what he needs to do with the characters at a given point in the story doesn’t mean he knows how to do it with them. The film spends most of its runtime promising to give Anne Meara and Pat McNamara these great roles but instead reduces them both to caricature. Sure, not the initially implied caricatures—she’s an overbearing Long Island housewife and he’s the hen-pecked husband—but changing from one caricature to another isn’t character development. Because Mottola asks for a lot of leeway on Meara, who’s shown as terrible person throughout and one not even deserving of empathy, implying along the way any woman over a certain age are raving harpies, only to make her even worse than predicted.

It’s a lot.

And then Mottola’s done with her because she’s just a distraction. She’s been distracting the film from Hope Davis, the ostensible lead, for the previous seventy minutes or so and then all of a sudden it’s like… oh, yeah, she’s just MacGuffin. Because we couldn’t get Stanley Tucci for anything but a supporting role. Tucci is Davis’s husband. The film opens with them coming home from Thanksgiving and having an intimate moment. The next day, Tucci goes off to work in the city and Davis discovers what appears to be a love letter on the floor. Presumably fell out of his briefcase. So she heads over to mom Meara’s, where we’ve already met the rest of the cast. We get introduced to Meara and McNamara as they make as much noise as possible to wake other daughter Parker Posey, who’s home from college for the holiday with boyfriend Liev Schreiber. Posey and Schreiber are going into the city and waiting for McNamara to give them a ride to the train.

But then Davis arrives with her problems and, counseling against her calling Tucci, Meara decides McNamara is going to drive everyone into the city. Hence The Daytrippers.

The family has various misadventures getting into the city, their journey set to Schreiber summarizing his novel to the mostly disinterested audience. Watching Posey and Schreiber’s relationship slowly implode over the film as the pressure in the car keeps on ratcheting up is one of Daytrippers’s most deliberate and least successful subplots. Eventually Posey meets author Campbell Scott—Tucci’s a literary agent or something—and he’s everything Schreiber wishes he could be—published, self-confident, smarter. The scene where Scott takes Schreiber’s insipid political philosophy out back and beats it with a stick until it crumbles is something else. The Daytrippers always feels very indie, with John Inwood’s realistic (and gorgeous) photography, Richard Martinez’s score, Mottola’s long takes… but the story’s basically a sitcom episode and a lot of the characterizations are similarly shallow. Even Meara’s performance works more appropriately in that context.

Only Mottola is very clearly not directing a sitcom. He directs against the script, which somehow works, but the script’s still got its problems. And then there’s Schreiber, who’s too tall to be puppy dog and a little bit too absurd. Six foot three, Cambridge-educated, mama’s boy fops who work construction in Michigan require a lot of… something. And neither Mottola or Schreiber know how to do that something.

Davis gets very little to do in the first half of the film—see, they can’t find Tucci so they have to traverse the city through the runtime with the aforementioned adventures, which are have limited budgets and often involve parties or at least social gatherings with food and alcohol present—but then she gets a bunch in the third act. Only not a lot of dialogue, just a lot of long takes of Davis thinking. She’s awesome at them and you wish Mottola had been doing them the whole time because they add up while the stuff he had been focusing on did not.

McNamara’s okay. I was expecting more from him, but he’s solid. Posey’s good. Not a great part overall (which is a big problem), but she’s good. Tucci’s great. Great cameo from Marcia Gay Harden.

The Daytrippers is a well-made picture, with a few moments of inspired brilliance. In the end those moments just make you wish Mottola had figured out how to do them sooner. And more frequently.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Greg Mottola; director of photography, John Inwood; edited by Anne McCabe; music by Richard Martinez; production designer, Bonnie J. Brinkley; costume designer, Barbara Presar; produced by Nancy Tenenbaum and Steven Soderbergh; released by Cinépix Film Properties.

Starring Hope Davis (Eliza Malone D’Amico), Parker Posey (Jo Malone), Liev Schreiber (Carl Petrovic), Anne Meara (Rita Malone), Pat McNamara (Jim Malone), Campbell Scott (Eddie Masler), Andy Brown (Ronnie), Paul Herman (Leon), Marcia Gay Harden (Libby), Marc Grapey (Aaron), Douglas McGrath (Chap), and Stanley Tucci (Louis D’Amico).


American Splendor (2003, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)

American Splendor has a little too much going on. Directors Berman and Pulcini seem to want to do something different–Splendor opens as a cross between a docu-comedy and an attempt at time period preciousness (which gets them into trouble later as the film doesn’t progress, visually, out of the eighties). Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar from the sixties through the nineties. Harvey Pekar narrates and gets interviewed.

Berman and Pulcini don’t really give Giamatti a part so much as a comic book character. Splendor is the dramatized true story of Pekar, who dramatized his own life in a comic book. So it’s a comic book adaptation once removed or something. The filmmakers don’t actually do anything with it–Pekar, in the narration, recounts how he’d become a quirky, exploited outlier at the height of his eighties celebrity, but the filmmakers don’t do it much different.

Then Hope Davis shows up as Pekar’s wife. And Pekar’s wife shows up for a bit too in the interview sequences. If Berman and Pulcini only give Giamatti a caricature based on Pekar to play, they give Davis even less. When there is actual dramatic material–cancer, a foster child–the filmmakers go straight to summary. Splendor’s all artifice.

Maybe if Berman and Pulcini were better directors–Terry Stacey’s photography, presumably on location in economically depressed Cleveland saves a lot of the visuals–the film would work out better.

Giamatti’s really good, he just doesn’t have much material.

Splendor’s too slight.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman; screenplay by Springer Berman and Pulcini, based on comic books written by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Pulcini; music by Mark Suozzo; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope; released by HBO Films.

Starring Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar), Hope Davis (Joyce Brabner), James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb), Judah Friedlander (Toby Radloff), Joyce Brabner (Real Joyce) and Harvey Pekar (Real Harvey).


The Lodger (2009, David Ondaatje)

Okay, I thought Lodger auteur David Ondaatje was really his uncle (English Patient author) Michael Ondaatje. I wished I’d checked before starting the movie… even with Hope Davis in it, I’m not sure I would have watched it. It really changes my impression of it. All of the stupid zooming and fast-forwarding and post-production nonsense, I was going to give Michael Ondaatje, author, the benefit of the doubt. Like he was trying to do something with film one can only do in fiction, with pacing and choice description. It doesn’t work in The Lodger, but at least I thought I knew where Michael Ondaatje was going with it. Where’s David Ondaatje, filmmaker (of no other features), going with it in The Lodger?

On the express train to Crapsville. (Oh, how is Crapsville not a real word, Apple spell check… you don’t think lollygag is a real word either and it is). David Ondaatje doesn’t even have a good reason for making The Lodger, a Jack the Ripper novel adapted four times before. Michael Ondaatje got the benefit out the doubt, again, for trying to do a post-modern adaptation (it doesn’t work, but then I assumed Michael Ondaatje, who writes novels I’d probably never read–Miramax fiction should be a genre–was bound to fail). Is David Ondaatje writing a post-modern Jack the Ripper serial killer movie?

No, he’s not. Unfortunately, I can’t even tell you, the person reading this response, what Ondaatje is doing. But I’ll give you a clue. He references, rather well, actually, The Matrix in some dialogue. What Ondaatje is doing with The Lodger is very similar to what another 1999 big studio release (but not a successful one) did. Why’s he doing it? Because he doesn’t really have much of a story. I just figured Michael Ondaatje wrote a couple outlines for short stories and turned them into a movie… You know, I could at least understand how Michael Ondaatje would get a green light to make this film, but I can’t figure out how David Ondaatje did.

Davis is good. She doesn’t deserve these kinds of roles. Watching The Lodger, I kept remembering all the great work she’s done through her career and how she’s never gotten the respect an actor of her stature deserves. Similarly, what’s Alfred Molina doing in this kind of a movie? His harried cop slash suspect isn’t a great character, but Molina brings some real professionalism to the role. He’s great. The two cast members who kind of belong in this movie, which is very similar to USA original movies from the mid-1990s, are Shane West and Donal Logue. Logue’s a lout. Whoop dee doo, Logue’s always playing a lout. Slightly more interesting is West, who showed a lot of promise at some point in his career; he isn’t terrible, but he isn’t any good. Philip Baker Hall shows up to cash a paycheck in what might be the laziest performance I’ve ever seen him give. Rachael Leigh Cook has gotten less terrible over the years.

And Simon Baker, as the titular Lodger… he’s not in it enough. Baker’s basically playing a cipher, but Davis works well with him and it would have been nice for the film to have better scenes throughout.

Ondaatje’s plot actually isn’t terrible. It’s a pointless mystery running ninety-some minutes… you know, just like a USA original movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Ondaatje; screenplay by Ondaatje, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes; director of photography, David A. Armstrong; edited by William Flicker; music by John Frizzell; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Michael Mailer and Ondaatje; released by Stage 6 Films.

Starring Alfred Molina (Chandler Manning), Hope Davis (Ellen Bunting), Shane West (Street Wilkenson), Donal Logue (Bunting), Philip Baker Hall (Captain Smith), Rachael Leigh Cook (Amanda), Rebecca Pidgeon (Dr. Jessica Westmin), Simon Baker (Malcolm), François Chau (Sam) and Mel Harris (Margaret).


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