(UK/USA - 1990)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Adrienne Shelly, Martin Donovan, Merritt Nelson, John MacKay, Edie Falco
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Director: Hal Hartley
Screenplay: Hal Hartley
Cinematography: Michael Spiller
Composer: The Great Outdoors, Philip Reed

Following in the footsteps of his debut The Unbelievable Truth, Hal Hartley further explores the empty lives of disillusioned young adults amidst the banal sprawl-ridden landscape of his Long Island hometown. Adrienne Shelly returns as the bratty alienated teen who gets involved with an earnest but volatile man. The worst day of Maria Coughlin’s (Shelly) life, which among other shocks and traumas includes her pregnancy provoking her father’s heart attack and jock boyfriend Anthony’s (Gary Sauer) prompt dismissal, simply opens her up to Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan), a principled electronics expert who can fix everything but his own life.

The reform school grad with a history of violence walks the streets at night with a live grenade by his side, fighting the world because he can’t find the strength to stand up to his father Jim Slaughter (John MacKay). Matthew is largely dangerous because he’s so sincere. He’s unable to compromise his principles to and kowtow to idiots because when he tries he winds up so miserable he feels the need to grimly loaf around numbing himself through more alcohol than usual in addition to what Marshall McLuhan described as “the opium for the masses”.

Lacking any safe haven beyond solitude, the youths are loners because everyone they’ve tried to lean on invariable falls over one way or another, leaving them broken when their trust proves unearned. Though neither are the greatest catch, it’s partially some better luck, stumbling across each other at the peak of their misery, that makes them consider things they otherwise wouldn’t. Suddenly, they share the common bond of having one parent who is not only impossible but abusive.

Hartley uses absurdity and satire to show situation, dynamics, and purpose change people for better or worse. His film combines a thoughtful examination of the pros and cons of family and marriage with a farce of bourgeois respectability and a melancholy for the ennui brought upon by crushed hopes and shattered dreams. He pokes fun at the extreme behavior of parents for kidnapping or exterminating babies while abusing older children for failure to meet the expectations they had upon attaining them. He’s more serious when it comes to showing the effect of poor parents on children, as in his subsequent Simple Men, also featuring Donovan, they reach the age of adulthood without ever growing up. Similar to Jean-Luc Godard, Hartley derives much of his satirical comedy from aside and coincidence, not to mention human’s innate worship of money.

In a classic Godard-esque exploration of the medium, Hartley has two characters sit next to each other have a conversation where both essentially talk to themselves without realizing it, the “companionship” merely providing the illusion of interaction. This scene is the most memorable of several ways the film points out the difficulty of finding someone who sees or hears the true you. Though the film is obviously called and largely about the necessity of trust in any close relationship, Hartley equally emphasizes the necessity of looking beyond the surface (which Maria later realizes Anthony never did), as relationships evaporate along with the mythical vision of the person you are with.

Hartley’s films exist on a bizarre plain somewhat detached from reality. He’s not comparable to David Lynch, but his satires of America do evoke a similar distancing method that makes you unsure of how seriously you are supposed to take the characters and proceedings. Hartley’s style is deadpan rather than hysterical, utilizing dry and wry humor. His films are somewhat fitful, nonsensical, and frustrating, but never in a gimmicky way. Where other stories would come off as ridiculous, Hartley’s begin to seem more believable because he uses these aspects as exposition rather than as the crux of his story. He hasn’t made a film about child abuse, an action may be prompted, but it’s only supplying a need to change not the reason Slaughter eventually tries to, after much deliberation and soul seeking. There’s certainly no attempt to replicate reality, but you might be able to relate to the ebb and flow of life, recalling times when the tide turned for or against you for reasons so silly or ridiculous they are virtually inexplicable to others.

The performances of the leads are very successful. Adrienne Shelly is the eccentric, inept but determined to be independent woman subverting her shallowness for a newfound responsibility that yields the confidence to proudly don her “librarian” glasses. Martin Donovan excels at portraying characters that smolder beneath the surface, moving from detached analysis to searing anger, his vulnerability leading to extreme behavior. The film isn’t always successful, but it tends to be interesting even when it isn’t working.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *