Monday, January 7, 2013

Party Like It's 1999 - Part 4 - Tears of A Clown

"Andrew, I hate to say this. You are in danger, in real danger, of becoming one of those bitter old men for whom sarcasm is not just a mode of expression, but the very fabric of life itself. "

When  Harold Goldman (Buck Henry) issues this warning to his son, Andrew (Matt McGrath) , he could easily be offering advice to all of Andrew's friends as well. This is a party on the eve on the Millennium, filled with twentysomethings who should have very comfortable lives, but who refuse to be happy, burdening themselves with what has now popularly become known as First-World problems.

If Woody Allen's neurotic New Yorkers are constantly looking back and fretting decisions they have made, Nick Davis' characters are fretting mistakes they have yet to make, and unfulfilled lives they have yet to live.

It isn't as if Davis isn't aware of how ridiculous their worries are, but he refuses to treat his characters as the butt of cheap jokes, either. Dan Futterman's Rufus Wild can be a pompous ass, whose biggest worry seems to be that he does not yet have a legacy at an age when other "geniuses" had already made their mark on history. He is about to let the best thing that ever happened to him, his girlfriend, Anabel (Jennifer Garner) walk away, seemingly just for the sake of change, and yet he is so afraid to make any choice in his life that he doesn't know what to do when his fantasy girl (Amanda Peet) practically offers herself to him.

"How can you keep your hands off of me? " she asks, voicing a feeling we have as well.

Sylvia, a singer played by Margaret Devine, is about to give up singing to become an ear doctor, and later leads the group in a sociological experiment of wearing words hung around their neck and seeing how it affects them emotionally.

Besides Henry Goldman, the only other older character is Goatman, played by comic Steven Wright with the same wry, sardonic twist his stage persona carries.

What Nick Davis realizes is that, much like someone with a psychosomatic illness, the pain is still real for these people, and so while we laugh with - and at - these people, we also feel for them. At least three of the characters in the film flirt with suicide, and Davis is deft enough to have us believe that a tragic ending is very much possible.

On set, while filming, most of these moments were just funny, very funny. When broken into moments like Sylvia explaining why she has always cared about ears, its hard not to laugh.

As with a lot of the great indie films of the mid-to-late nineties, 1999 was a movie that wanted to know why that generation really wasn't as happy as it should be.

In the end, I think it makes 1999 a much better movie, if one that was not as funny. The warning Harold offers to his son concludes:

"I know these men. They run from the world, they hide their feelings, they don't even know how unhappy they are. They are not well."

The film gives a nod not only to the neurotic comedies of Woody Allen, but to the sophisticated ones of Noel  Coward in a different era. Suki, played with equal parts empathy and dry wit by Sandrine Holt, even  uses a long cigarette holder and wears a cloche hat reminiscent of the flappers headwear of the 1920s.

Indeed, it is the plea Davis is making to his characters, and one that rings true.

So many of the actors named above give performances that allow an audience to care about them, even if that sometimes dampens the comedy.

If there is a flaw to the movie for me, it is the editing, which seems a bit disjointed at times in a way that doesn't serve the story. That is similar to a feeling I had the first time I saw the film screened.

Anyone who enjoyed the comedies from that period that refused to just play for laughs, such as Welcome to the Dollhouse or Spanking the Monkey, will find the time viewing this movie as well-spent. For others, a glimpse of future stars Futterman, Peet, Garner and Olyphant will be enough reason to check it out.

Unlike outside reviewers, I can't pretend to be objective. I liked the people involved and I liked the project. My overall experience was positive, and I got a good deal of laughs out of this viewing. However, anyone who has followed my blog knows that I do not labor under the illusion that everything I worked on was a classic.

I don't think it's an overstatement to say that 1999 is a lost gem from that era, and worth checking out.

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