07 January 2007

Flannel Pajamas

I’m only human, so even I (that's right, even me) can occasionally get suckered into seeing a movie based solely on the appeal of a great trailer. For example, the trailer for Good Night and Good Luck is so good it can make you want to see the movie even after you just saw it. After seeing the Shopgirl trailer fifty times, my rational resistance to renting it was worn down ("maybe it won't be so bad after all..."). And the trailer for Flannel Pajamas, with its super catchy pop song and Technicolor intertitles reminiscent of My Own Private Idaho, struck a chord with me. I figured I’d wait and read the reviews and try to make a less emotional decision -- after all, in my current financial situation $10.75 is a of money to gamble -- but when none appeared in the papers on the day it opened, I decided to treat myself and take the risk.

Well, I can’t say my optimistic indulgence was pleasantly gratified, but neither can I say that I was utterly disappointed. The film presents a deeply realized character study that’s long, talky, and absorbing. Its fly-on-the-wall glimpse into a romance, from its promising beginnings to its troubled end, is brutally and unflinchingly honest – a courageous act on behalf of its stars, Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson, and its writer-director.

Stuart and Nicole are set up on a blind date and really hit it off. Stuart makes his living by inventing phony back-stories for Broadway plays to induce larger ticket sales, and he’s such a good bullshit-artist that he is able to put on an act convincing enough that Nicole eventually agrees to marry him. Once they are married, however, the mask of the courtship ritual is removed, and the characters become more honestly themselves. Consequently, their relationship begins to disintegrate.

To anyone who’s ever been in a bourgeois relationship or, according to the aureate Stephen Holden, "if you belong to the college-educated class of New York professionals that believes in talking things out," the film’s particulars and generalities are both at once painfully familiar and comfortably foreign, leaving the viewer at a safe distance and yet deeply emotionally involved. The film's first half, which sets the romance up for its inevitable fall, is wonderfully executed and alone makes the film worth seeing. Its tightly connected scenes of a bourgeoning love affair are so precisely detailed, subtextual and candid as to render them utterly captivating. Its second half, however, loses its focus by straying too far into external family drama. Suddenly subtext becomes simplytext. Nicole's mother exposes that she is an anti-Semite of the Grammy Hall variety, except she isn't played for laughs, and it starts to feel a little ridiculous. You can almost hear Lipsky whispering in the back of the theater, "did you hear that? Someone said, 'Jew want some popcorn? Not do you, but jew, jew want some popcorn...'"

Lipsky has a far better understanding of relationships than he does family and religion, and it unfortunately shows. When he begins to abandon the hermetic world of the relationship for a contextual look in from the outside, the film suffers and it never fully recovers. Lipsky attempts to say, rather than show, that the relationship is more complex than he ever really established. Just by declaring that the failure of the marriage is rooted in religious conflict and family histories doesn't make it convincingly so; all I see are two people gradually drifting apart for personal reasons not elucidated by an exploration into their genes. Tashsa Robinson put it best in her trenchant review: "she needs...her overprotective mother, and he needs absolutely anyone who'll let him play overprotective mother."

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