Pat McNamara

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).


Ash Wednesday (2002, Edward Burns)

Burns must have cast Elijah Wood because of Lord of the Rings, figured his presence would boost Ash Wednesday‘s salability. At some point during filming, as Burns watched Wood’s useless, laughable, whiny performance… he must have regretted it. It’s not like the film’s only problem is Wood–far from it–but he’s just so terrible, so incompetent, the whole proposition becomes ludicrous when he appears.

And the appearance of his character is actually one of the film’s other primary problems. The first twenty-five minutes–save a useless prologue, probably only in there to get Wood on screen at the outset in order to satisfy that rabid Elijah Wood fan-base–are a solid, boring day in the life. Burns isn’t going for metaphor with the title, the film takes place on February 16, 1983. He’s playing a bar owner who goes about his morning, trying to get to church and stuck hearing about his brother (Wood)–supposedly deceased–back from the grave. He’s got good mobsters, bad mobsters and a priest pestering him. It’s a solid twenty-five minutes, because there’s no indication Wood’s still alive, and it’s just day-in-the-life and Burns does it well. I wonder if he distracted himself from Wood’s performance with the exquisite direction. He futzes with the focus for effect at times and it doesn’t work, but Ash Wednesday has some wonderful composition. It’s so good, one can forgive Burns his sepia filter, which he must have been using to give it the 1983 look. It doesn’t really work, but, again, it’s forgivable.

The problems with the script are a different matter. Burns’s protagonist is barely a character. The more people talk about him–the main source of information about the stoic, somber individual–the more difficult it becomes to reconcile Burns’s portrayal with the imagined personality. One of Burns’s greatest strengths as a writer-director-actor is his ability to write himself a good character. He’s not Marlon Brando–in most of his films, the flashier performances go to other actors–but here, he misfires. Presumably, the Wood role was supposed to be flashier, but instead it’s like a mob comedy–like that movie with Charles Grodin and Martin Short where Short plays a little kid–Wood is playing a tough guy.

There’s also an inherent problem with the genre. The Irish crime genre has almost no successes–all I can think of, recently, is The Departed. Almost every other notable one–I’m thinking primarily of State of Grace–is a disaster. Burns certainly doesn’t bring anything new to it, but there’s a potential to Ash Wednesday he doesn’t seem aware of.

If the film had been a day-in-the-life where Wood doesn’t show up until the last act (or not at all)–and Burns had written himself a better role–it would have been something interesting… a character drama set in a crime-friendly environment. Would have been solid.

It’s just a shame such good direction–and such a good cast (Oliver Platt, James Handy, Peter Gerety)–got wasted on such a poor effort. David Shire’s music too. It’s a simple, repetitive piano score. Boring, like the entire movie should have been.

Still, without Wood, it would have at least been passable… though Rosario Dawson doesn’t have an ounce of chemistry with anyone in the film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Russell Lee Fine; edited by David Greenwald; music by David Shire; production designer, Susan Block; produced by Margot Bridger and Burns; released by Focus Features.

Starring Edward Burns (Francis Sullivan), Elijah Wood (Sean Sullivan), Rosario Dawson (Grace Quinonez), Oliver Platt (Moran), Pat McNamara (Murph), James Handy (Father Mahoney), Michael Mulheren (Pulaski), Malachy McCourty (Whitey) and Peter Gerety (Uncle Handy).


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