Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): **½
I’m glad I viewed Breaking Upwards -- the new do-it-yourself movie from fledgling filmmakers and on-again/off-again couple Daryl Wein & Zoe Lister-Jones -- before I read the full-page article by Larry Rohter in the March 26 New York Times. It detailed how the movie came to be at the relatively rock-bottom cost (for a film shot in NYC) of only $15,000. Much of the information Rohter provides is very interesting, especially for would-be filmmakers.
The film itself, however, despite some comparisons to early work of Woody Allen (his themes may be present but little of his wit or style), is finally rather dreary. Breaking Upwards -- which explains what happens when a young couple, played by the filmmakers, decides to take some time off from each other -- has a relatively starry cast for DIY: Julie White, Andrea Martin (of SCTV fame), Peter Friedman, Pablo Schreiber, Olivia Thirlby and Ebon Moss-Bachrach (John Quincy Adams on John Adams).
Most of the cast has legit theater experience, which may account for why certain cast members (White, in particular) seem to be constantly addressing the second balcony. Only Martin and Friedman seem both at ease and on target at all times, able to spice things up (this is especially true of Martin) with a heady dose of professionalism and reality.
The screenplay, I think, is most at fault here. According to the Times article, it was conceived first by Wein and his friend and co-writer Peter Duchan (not to be confused with piano-player Peter Duchin). Then Lister-Jones was brought in to add the proper feminine touch because of its original skew toward the male prerogative. Oddly, it still skews heavily male, given how Lister-Jones' character (whom we shall assume she both wrote and acts) has the bad habit of shooting herself in the foot with alarming regularity. She whines continually, especially about her short stature (and then proceeds to wear only clothes -- such as very short skirts & dresses -- that call undue attention to this). She and Wein both play the on-again/off-again card to distraction, and while I commend Lister-Jones for giving us a "warts-and-all" characterization, I just wish she were not quite so charmless.
She's an actress, which gives us access to the audition process and some rather fun looks into off-off Broadway theater -- which seems not to have changed much in the 40 years since I was involved in it. The ego of the male actor, as well as the actor himself (Schreiber is the leading exponent here) is even bigger than I remember. And while the filmmakers hit a number of au courant buttons (polyamory, anyone?), they don't bring as much interest to their subjects as did (even without the hardcore scenes) John Cameron Mitchell in his movie Shortbus.
Despite hitting all the right bases, Breaking Upwards often lacks the specificity in the dialog that would bring to sharp life (not to mention with more wit and humor) what is going on. This is true in the various family scenes and the scene with Wein and his boss (played by Broadway musical star LaChanze). There is an "expectedness" to much of the dialog that runs through everything, rendering the movie flat and finally dragging it down. While the film-making is never out-and-out bad, it is also never very good.
However, it did manage to get made and at that incredibly reasonable price. This may be a double-edged sword because you do, after all, get what you pay for. By the film's finale you may feel as strongly as I did that there is but one way out for Wein's character: Take that job in Canada, meet some nice girl, get married -- and be entitled to immediate health care.
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