Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Confusions of an Unmarried Couple

Confusions of an Unmarried Couple is a snappy indie film made by the Butler brothers, who split writing, directing, editing, cinematographing and starring duties between them. The film is structured around a lengthy conversation between Dan and Lisa, a couple that were engaged until he walked in on her with another woman. It’s full of crackling, funny dialogue and fairly insightful observations about people and relationships.

I’m sure the filmmakers have heard this from countless viewers, but the film fits in the same stylistic and thematic universe as early 90s indies like Richard Linklater’s work and, in particular, Kevin Smith. From Linklater we’ve got the dialogue based film, echoing something like Before Sunset. The Butlers clearly love the way people talk and take great pleasure in crafting literate, but profane banter for the two lead characters. In that respect, there’s a lot of Kevin Smith in here. He’s become the target of a lot of haters, and certainly his recent films have their flaws, but I still really like Clerks and love Chasing Amy. Confusions exists in the same universe as these films, and is perhaps even more professional looking and certainly better acted than Clerks.

The film centers almost exclusively on a real time conversation between Dan and Lisa, which is occasionally interrupted by talking head video of Dan and Lisa reflecting on the relationship. The talking head segments keep things from getting tedious, it’s not easy to keep an audience interested when your film has only one setting and two characters, but the fairly consistent hit ratio on jokes made it work. The film uses slightly stylized dialogue, the characters speaking the way we’d all want to speak, in witty, literate sentences, rather than the halting, um interrupted way that most of us actually speak. I like this kind of dialogue, it helps to keep things a bit lighter.

The film works best when it remains in an emotionally real universe, and allows the characters to go to a darker place. Dan vacillates between likeability and douchebaggery in a way that makes us understand why she could like him, but also sympathize when she rejects him. In the way that a lot of male filmmakers do, our point of view character is the male, we understand what he’s doing, but Lisa remains more enigmatic. She seems like an artsy person with larger concerns, why was she attracted to Dan in the first place? The film does a good job of showing how he can be charming at moments, and that the two of them can work well together. Because we’re coming in after the relationship is over, the two of them focus on the bad times, but there’s still that rapport and connection that draws them together.

Not to dwell on Smith, but the emotional arc of their relationship is reminiscent of Chasing Amy, with a less experienced male letting his insecurity destroy the relationship. It’s a relatable arc, and I think it works here by giving Dan a motivation for some of his hurtful moments. Not that Lisa is devoid of negative characteristics, there’s a balance in the relationship, but I feel like we’re given less access to her internal motivations, or perhaps they’re just less relatable to me. Either way, the characters work fairly well.

While I liked the dialogue, I had an issue with the way it was filmed. A lot of the scenes were shot in lengthy singles, with the camera panning from character to character as they spoke. The problem is, the characters would always pause as the camera panned, then start when it was on them. This made things feel a bit unnatural. It would have been better to keep the conversation flowing naturally and just catch up as they panned. There’s not that much to do with this film visually, but there are some interesting shots, the final scene is really well staged, definitely the visual highlight of the film.

In terms of acting, the film’s got its on and off moments. Naomi Johnson, who plays Lisa, is great in the talking head scenes, but not as believable in the real world scenes. Brett Butler as Dan is really funny, but not always believable on an emotional level.

But, ultimately, the film has enough to entertain. I love snappy banter, and this film provides that in spades. There’s a lot of really funny stuff here, and also a believable emotional story. That’s more than you’ll get out of virtually all Hollywood comedies. It’s a bit reductive to say, if you enjoy Kevin Smith movies, you’ll enjoy this, but really, that’s the best thing I can say. It’s that same style and the same satisfaction.

Substance Productions

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