January 21, 2012

If Jane Weinstock’s 2003 romantic comedy Easy had been made for a Hollywood studio, with attendant bigger budget and presumably bigger stars, I probably would have praised it as a noble failure.  Sure, it is not a good film, but in those circumstances, it would certainly be trying to do something interesting in that blandest and most uninspired of genres.  Unfortunately, Easy is a low-budget indie that should understand the trade-off between having no budget is having no market expectations, freeing the filmmaker to break the mold of the everyday genre fare and explore the possibilities it offers in elucidating the travails of romance in modern society.  The fact that it was written and directed by a woman, something that still happens all-to-rarely, only makes it worse. 

The story should be simple and all-too familiar.  Jamie (Marguerite Moreau) is unlucky in love.  Coming off a long history of sleeping with jerks who make excuses or don’t call her back, she hooks up with a British poet named John (Naveen Andrews).  They spent an indeterminate amount of time together in a blundering montage before his ex-girlfriend and former soulmate comes back into his life.  He says he needs to think about things and Jamie flies off the handle.  Meanwhile, she’s befriended an older Irish comedian, Mick (Brian F. O’Byrne), through her neighbour and best friend, who is an acupuncturist.  This sort-of-kind-of love triangle is the set-up, and its predictability shouldn’t matter a bit.  It’s always in the details where films like these shine, even if you hoped for something a little more interesting from an indie.  Unfortunately, this film is overstuffed at 97 minutes without about five plots too many, as everyone has some strange issue and goings-on on the side, including Jamie’s sister Laura (Emily Deschanel) and the various friends and former lovers that make up this increasingly incestuous group.  I might have made it sound much more interesting that it really is, but I didn’t mean to.  These little subplots happen on the side, and they rarely directly or indirectly comment on Jamie’s situation other than to have the problems of love and eventual motherhood surrounding our cute but idiotic protagonist.

An example of the wayward ambition comes reasonably early, when apropos to nothing, Jamie comes across a crying, shocked woman in a bathroom stall.  The woman runs to the roof and threatens to commit suicide.  This absurd, hamfisted situation is perhaps the least elegant way in the history of film to divulge back story, and yet, there is Jamie on the roof revealing that her mother committed suicide when she was young.  More damning than this preposterous screenwriting excess is the fact that the suicide issue hangs there but is never comfortably melded with Jamie’s love life, which is the focus of the film.  The suicide aspect feels like clumsy grab at depth, and by introducing this ghostly pall over the proceedings it might give emotional weight to a character that is little more than a stock rom-com female (all the way down to her quirky marketing job).

Visually, due to budget, this is nothing like your typical Hollywood affair.  However, due to its use of DV – and this was 2003 so we shouldn’t be too harsh – it has a sickly, de-coloured look instead of the grotesque gloss the genre usually throws up.  This isn’t all down to technology, of course.  Pieces of April is not a pretty film, but its director and cinematographer used what they had to give it a sense of an autumnal home movie.  It wouldn’t be fair in the slightest to bring up Richard Linklater’s claustrophobic Tape, but it’s hard not to think of it when you see that particular early 00s DV image on screen.  The lighting is awkward to atrocious and the director has little-to-no understanding about just how she wants to film the characters interacting in these relatively small spaces.  The freedom of movement is not always a blessing.  It’s also no excuse for the audio recording, but I’m willing to concede that maybe that was just my TV.  In any case, the visual style only detracts from the material.  It is so uninteresting to look at that when Weinstock throws in something like the shot of the reflection of a man between two sisters in a painting it smacks of trying-too-hard (not to mention its underlining a theme that is barely there anyway).  There’s a big scene in a blue room that could have worked, but it never rises above “student video” levels.  The sex scenes do have a more graphic, intimate realism than you’d expect, but I’m going to assume that the effect is pure luck based on the aesthetic sensibilities on display through the rest of the film.

The central issue through all of this is Jamie herself.  Marguerite Moreau does very well to make the character bearable without relying on just being cute.  The character is repulsive in a number of ways, from her harsh overreactions to her predictable indecision with regards to her two would-be partners.  This isn’t to say that her reactions to something like John’s ex-girlfriend or to a misunderstanding later on aren’t believable, but this film is too filled with artificial plot devices to create the coherent world necessary to enact a true character study.  I imagine this film wants to be an honest look at love in the modern era for 20-something females, but it pays little attention to the sorts of minute details that could have properly cast a light on the experience.  The hovering question is that of sex, of course, and the eventual decision by Jamie to go celibate for three months.  Considering the brash, ridiculous way this same conceit was handled with the genders reversed in the peculiar 40 Days and 40 Nights, it obviously could have gone a lot worse.  Still, that’s a mainstream film played for laughs and trading on gendered stereotypes about just the types of jerks that Jamie complains about in Easy.  The strange thing is we get very little sense of what Jamie’s sex life is really all about.  It’s established at the beginning that she seems to have a lot of sex, but aside from the kiss-off voicemail messages over the opening credits, we have no understanding of just how this works.  When she relapses in the middle of the film after heartbreak, we get a quick montage of various men signing her cast (don’t ask), which is twisted and odd and could have been interesting, but we don’t know why Jamie does or if she gets any pleasure out of recreational, meaningless sex.  Does she do it because she’s convinced these guys might be the one?  Does she do it out of self-loathing?  Does she do it because she thinks guys will like her more?  Does she do it for, god forbid, fun?  None of this is properly addressed or even given adequate screen time so all we’re really left with is the love triangle and a staunchly conservative attitude towards sex.  It’s no surprise that in her celibacy she ‘gets to know someone’ and they might fall in love because that’s what the typical Hollywood film would have us believe.  Women can’t have sex for fun, or ‘use’ men for their bodies.  It’s all about finding ‘true love’ and eventually – and this gets laid on pretty thick out of nowhere – procreate.

That conservatism is the real tragedy of the picture.  Okay, you have a small budget, but you’ve got a good cast and you can create something that’s an antidote to all the common, patriarchal conceptions of women and their love lives in the modern world.  If we want to see conformist art about this topic, we can see it with much nicer production design and perhaps one or two reasonably executed gags.  There is little that separates Easy from the mainstream other than a few crude words and nudity.  It smacks of someone auditioning for the studios and trying to show that they can play ball with the standard audience expectation, and that’s a real shame.  There’s a good movie to be had based around a single woman with an active sex life, but this film tries to play it safe while throwing in about eight too many sub-plots to distract from the central issue.  It might not look conventional, but by the end even the most minor of characters has found their own happy ending and you realize Easy is just the same old same old, only uglier.



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