Friday, April 28, 2006

Dolorous Duane (Duane Hopwood)

Duane Hopwood is a real sleeper in an era that doesn't allow for them. It's not perfect by any means — it relies on sad-sack indie ballads and montage a little too heavily and trots out an ending that feels a bit pat (even though director Matt Mulhern defended it as "well earned" in the post-discussion). But it also trots out some terrific performances from actors like David Schwimmer and Janeane Garofalo who've never really channeled their talents as selflessly and fully before. And it is a movie about alcoholism that is neither prurient (see: Leaving Las Vegas) nor chock-full of easy answers (see: any Lifetime movie ever made.)

Schwimmer plays the title character, an Atlantic City casino pit boss whose alcoholism is bringing him to a crisis point as the film begins. This dissolution is actually told through a really effective, clever use of montage: in quick succession, younger Duane (clad in a bowling shirt and mullet, ye gods) frolics with his family, loves up his wife, dashes off to his night job, gets loaded. The montage ends with his abandoned SUV abandoned on a sidewalk, its door dangling open, and Duane passed out in his clothes while his youngest daughter regards him with a benign, resigned tolerance. A terrible sight in a three-year-old.

In the first real scene, the camera tracks a SUV wobbling down a road in the middle of the night. He's pulled over by a cop who's also a buddy and thus inclined to give him a break (as he no doubt has many times before). Until he espies Duane's little girl sleeping in the back seat. Dang. Duane has already lost his wife, Linda (Garofalo, so bleached-out and whittled-down that she is scarcely recognizable), but he just can't seem to understand that it is the disease that is driving all these events that just seem like ugly coincidences to him: his wife's new boyfriend (the cute boy from the American Office!), him losing his job. Now he is in danger of losing any visitation rights with his children. And for all his faults, Duane is an attentive, deeply loving daddy.

That's what really works about the film. The premise is a bit Lifetime TV lite, but there's not a two-dimensional character in the film, nor a two-dimensional performance. Everyone is eminently humane, from Linda to Duane's clownish new roommate to his lawyer to Duane himself. Schwimmer actually really, really deserved recognition for this performance. All that self-pity that has clouded his acting before evaporated when he stepped into a character who could actually be drowning in it. If the ending kind of rushes his conversion to self-awareness — here is where montage doesn't serve the film too well — it does convey, like Man Push Cart, that even when life doesn't work out, you yourself can still work out. Or at least do your best.

After the screening, director Mulhern told his horror story of his distribution experience. He did his best to smother any bitterness, and he almost managed. But can you blame him for a little ire, really? His movie falls in an interesting category — bankable star, tiny budget — which, ideally, can render a movie very appealing for certain distributions. Unfortunately, dude was truly shafted. The film was released in the smaller cities first, with Mulhern and a willing-and-ready Schwimmer on the road to talk it up, under the premise that its good reviews would generate it a buzz that would aid its LA/NYC release. Instead, the release fell apart entirely, because Schwimmer got hooked into his next project. And the movie, which, for all of its faults, really is better than most of what I've seen at the IFC Center in the last five months, sank without a trace. Suffering suckotash.


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