It may be impossible to put together an ensemble as steel-clad as Timothy Hutton, Mira Sorvino, Dana Delany, Stockard Channing, and Mario Van Peebles and emerge with a complete misfire, but Multiple Sarcasms, an awkward comedy drama by producer-turned-writer/director Brooks Branch, comes mighty close.
Hutton stars as Gabriel Richmond, a successful architect, husband, and father living and working in Manhattan circa 1979. At the outset of the film, Gabe has an existential crisis, and attempts to both define it and work it out by penning an autobiographical stage drama entitled “Multiple Sarcasms.” Standing in the proverbial wings are his loving, supportive, and beautiful wife, Annie (Delany); his young daughter, Elizabeth (India Ennenga); a feisty literary agent named Pamela (Channing); Gabe’s lover-turned-platonic best friend, Cari (Sorvino); and his gay African-American co-worker and confidant, Rocky (Van Peebles).
Especially in its early stages, Sarcasms feels deliberately rootless and murky, as Richmond is striving for something in life that he can’t quite articulate. This leaves the audience in the dark, though the sense of dislocation seems entirely appropriate -- we feel thoroughly lost along with the character. Gabe’s issues come into focus late in the second act, as he arrives at the conclusion that his own undeclared feelings for Cari may have something to do with his innate ennui, and quickly decides to test the waters with her. Unfortunately, this sets up more problems than it solves. It makes a white elephant out of an already-lingering issue in the film: how a well-adjusted wife such as Annie could allow her husband to pal around for hours on end with a gorgeous, intelligent, and emotionally available ex-lover who experiences mutual spiritual kinship with the man -- and never raise an eyebrow.
This isn’t to say that the Annie-Gabriel-Cari dynamic is completely beyond the realm of possibility, merely that if the script is going to set it up as credible, it should at least carefully establish a satisfying explanation about how that harmonious and peaceful triangle came to exist. The dynamic is simply too unusual to pass without more elaboration than a simple intertitle that reads “The Best Friend” over a freeze-frame of Sorvino’s face, and a disclosure that the couple met in high school and only slept together once. The fact that the narrative eventually hinges on the outcome of the Gabe-Cari relationship makes the ambiguities surrounding it even more of an issue; the film raises unanswered questions about the history of their decades-long interaction, the role that a one-time sexual encounter between them played emotionally and psychologically, and most significantly, the reasons why each partner has suppressed his/her feelings and swallowed the pill of platonic friendship. We also wonder why it’s so obvious to everyone except for Gabe and Cari (and, conveniently, Gabe’s wife) that the lovers were born to be together.
If these problems are serious, the film’s resolution is nearly unforgivable. It would be almost impossible to spoil any surprises, because the details are so hopelessly murky: Cari writes Gabe a long, heartfelt letter, and in lieu of letting us hear what she has to say to him, Branch drowns out everything beyond the first sentence with a cover of Neil Young’s “Birds” that surges up on the soundtrack. We see the two characters physically together in a park at the end of the picture, but we have no sense of the terms of their relationship at all. And yet, the issues are broader than this -- the relationship has become so critical by this point that one feels the entire gestalt of the movie is awry. Gabriel’s play seems nearly incidental, and one wishes the film had declared its intentions from the outset by putting the Gabe-Cari relationship center stage and seeing it through to the end with clearer contextualization of each partner’s emotional denials (and self-delusions) within the framework of the relationship’s history; perhaps only that would take care of the unresolved issues the film sets up.
On a less critical note, the movie also suffers from its low budget. It may have been too costly to convincingly set the tale in the 1970s, because Branch’s visual establishment of 1979 is minimal to nonexistent here; it’s rather conspicuous, for a film set in Manhattan, that virtually no automobiles appear onscreen, and even the wardrobe itself is scarcely distinguishable as late-’70s apparel. At other times, Branch hands us minor but irritating anachronisms, such as when Gabriel references the Ryan O’Neal comedy So Fine -- released in 1981, two years after the events of this picture.
Despite these miscalculations and weaknesses, there are a few startlingly good elements scattered throughout Multiple Sarcasms. The entire ensemble does first-class work despite the drama’s limitations, especially Van Peebles, with his portrayal of Rocky. The actor conveys a lovely and unusual blend of pathos and humor, and also elicits huge laughs via Rocky’s imaginatively vulgar speech to Gabe about the distastefulness of heterosexual intercourse for him. The film also benefits from an anomalous yet fantastic cutaway to a musical number depicting an imagined scene from Gabe’s play -- his visualization of an incident involving Elizabeth’s first menstruation, recast as a musical number set to Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” with Hutton in a pompadour wig and ’70s tux, carrying enormous boxes of tampons and surrounded by female dancers with tampons on their heads. In this one instant, Branch singularly conveys the liberating role that dramaturgy itself carries for Gabe, and one only wishes that the director had scattered more of these musical cutaways throughout the movie, because the sequence temporarily lifts the material out of its doldrums and gives it an element of emotional buoyancy that the film otherwise lacks.
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- Released: 2010
- Rating: R
- Review: It may be impossible to put together an ensemble as steel-clad as Timothy Hutton, Mira Sorvino, Dana Delany, Stockard Channing, and Mario Van Peebles and emerge with a complete misfire, but Multiple Sarcasms, an awkward comedy drama by producer-turned-writ… (more)