In general, cinematic explorations of film and theatrical producing can be a very tricky proposition. Because these events occur in the hermetically sealed, self-referential world of show business, making them deliver means pulling an audience into a sphere that is all but alien to them, and enabling them to care about such foreign subjects as deal-making and schmoozing. Whether the tone is bilious (as in The Producers), fond (My Favorite Year), or a bittersweet combination of the two (Festival in Cannes), an underlying level of emotional investment is necessary to even begin to make the material work. Meeting Spencer, an insubstantial, unsatisfying whiff of a picture from British director Malcolm Mowbray (A Private Function) doesn’t have this sort of commitment. Among other problems, the film seems unremittingly hostile toward its subjects -- and not hostile in a fun way that befits a farce by making us revel in the characters’ wickedness; hostile in an indifferent, half-hearted way that defies us to involve ourselves in what is happening onscreen.
Spencer follows Harris Chappell (Jeffrey Tambor), a once top-of-the-line Broadway director who misfired several times in Hollywood. As the film opens, he returns to New York City with a promising play under his arm entitled “The Life and Times of Jackson Sweetwater,” and the deal machinery in place to make the financing happen on Broadway. He’s en route to that legendary theatrical hangout Frankie & Johnnie’s Steakhouse, where he plans to dine with several individuals instrumental to his success, including his ex-lover-turned-financial assist, Didi (Melinda McGraw); an up-and-coming young actor named Spencer West (Jesse Plemons); the play’s septuagenarian star, Larry Lind (William Morgan Sheppard); and the production’s financier, Monte Sobel (Brian McGovern). Also present are a young coat-check girl named Sophia Martinelli (Yvonne Zima), a gay stage actor named David Thiel (Mark Harelik), and a seductive, kinky reporter called Nikki Ross (Jill Marie Jones).
Naturally, the characters engage in various sleights of hand and manipulations with each other, but it is difficult to think of an onscreen treatment of industry networking where the decisions mattered less than they seem to here. Part of the problem may be tied to the fact that Harris isn’t a bottom-feeder; he’s a successful stage helmer who has experienced a slump while trying something different, and has already figured out how to reassert himself by retreating to the proscenium, long prior to the outset of the film. As a result, nothing really seems to be at stake. Despite occasional frustrations and vexations, Harris remains relatively confident, subdued, and in control enough to adjust to the curveballs thrown his way. There are crises, of course, yet the script never presents any of them as more than bumps in the road. Tambor, who can be so brilliant in a manic state (just witness his unhinged, dinner plate-hurling attorney in Norman Jewison’s …And Justice for All), never has an opportunity to let loose here -- to really fly off the handle and careen over the edge with rage and helplessness as the night rolls on. And that’s a shame, because a slow burn would have served this movie well by giving it some energy.
Compounding this dramatic anemia is the fact that so much of the action seems stage-bound and claustrophobic -- a particularly bizarre problem given the fact that the movie isn’t an adaptation of a play. Mowbray may have recognized this issue upon agreeing to take the reins, for he tries to inject occasional cinematic elements, such as an opening helicopter shot that careens over a breathtaking, neon-drenched Manhattan as the snow falls, and slick inserts of barroom cocktails. But none of this relieves the sense of confinement at the heart of the story.
The majority of the cast does perform satisfactorily within the limitations of the material that they are handed. In particular, McGraw projects a calculating sexiness, and Plemons turns Spencer into a fully realized creation with more dimension than the script affords him (he does a torchy blues ballad at the piano that temporarily kicks the movie up several notches). And, very occasionally, the film tosses off droll insights into the foibles of producing, such as Chappell’s willingness to sell out by radically modifying the contents of his play, simply to get it produced. But these assets are minor.
Curiously, the finest element in the film is also the least-explored; when Spencer learns that Sophia is an aspiring actress and offers to return later, “so that we can talk about your career,” the gifted Zima gives him a deeply moving, resonant reaction (filmed in close-up) that speaks volumes about her character’s innocence and vulnerability. Our sense of Sophia’s earnestness pays off later on, as she and Spencer experience a very meaningful connection via their shared love of theater. They swap several references to classic drama, and there’s nary a false note between the characters, nor is there any doubt about the potential for an emotional bond between them. One sincerely wishes that the movie would jump ship and focus exclusively on this blossoming relationship, and it’s a very bad sign indeed when a film makes us care much more about a tangential romance than we do about the events that take center stage; it suggests that the filmmakers had a very poor sense of what was working on camera and what wasn’t.
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- Released: 2011
- Rating: R
- Review: In general, cinematic explorations of film and theatrical producing can be a very tricky proposition. Because these events occur in the hermetically sealed, self-referential world of show business, making them deliver means pulling an audience into a spher… (more)