If there’s a trend in the fiction narratives at Sundance in 2012, it’s the series of smart(-ish), sweet(-er) and smutty(-styled) comedies in the mix here in Park City, some of which have been remarkably well-received (“For a Good Time Call“) and some of which are not (“Bachelorette“). Think of it as the aftershocks and propagation wave of Judd Apatow‘s success, demonstrating that audiences can, and will, like characters who talk about their lives and lusts in blunt terms, make mistakes, and spend part of the time fucking and the rest of it fucking up.
Directed by actor-turned-director Todd Louiso and written by Louiso’s wife Sarah Koskoff, “Hello I Must Be Going” stars Melanie Lynskey as Amy Minsky, a 35-year-old, shell-shocked and shattered in the wake of her divorce. For three months now, Amy’s been staying in her mom and dad’s house, which is being renovated; the only thing that can blast Amy out of bed is the buzz of the bandsaw every morning. Amy’s dad Stan (John Rubenstein) is distant yet loving; his idea of both a heart-to-heart and a life philosophy is to shrug and say, ‘What are you gonna do?” Her mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) is a blithe and busy woman, who, when she asks if Amy has heard of antidepressants, pronounces it as if the word were hyphenated and rhymed with “croissant.” Something is going to have to bring Amy around. A little self-realization, self-criticism and hot inadvisable sex in the back of her mom’s Infiniti might just be the ticket.
Louiso’s “Love Liza,” starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was a more dark and more dour look at the end of love — in that case, a love was torn apart by death, and not divorce. But — unlike the glib, glossy and entirely idiotic “Crazy Stupid Love” — “Hello, I Must Be Going” takes divorce seriously, as a matter of both acrimony and alimony, covering both the legal papers and the crimes of the heart. And Lynskey, who’s spent time in filmmaking heaven (“Heavenly Creatures,” “Shattered Glass“) and modern media hell (“Two and a Half Men,” “Coyote Ugly“), hurls herself into the part — the heartbreak, the comedy, the awkward pauses and the physical bits — with enthusiasm and charm.
At a dinner for the great white whale client of her dad’s dreams — if Stan’s firm lands these clients, he can retire — Amy meets the client’s younger son, an actor named Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), best-known for a kid’s show and some stage work. He and Amy kiss. He and Amy then do more than that. It might endanger the deal. It also doesn’t help that Jeremy is 19. (As a brief side note, I am not going to suggest that these sorts of relationships do not happen in the wake of divorce, when people are not at their best, but I will note that if the genders of the characters were swapped, and “Hello I Must Be Going” depicted a 35-year-old man having a sexually charged relationship with a 19-year-old woman, the film’s plot would probably be seen as more squeam-inducing than sweet).
What makes “Hello I Must Be Going” as good as it is isn’t merely the great work by the cast (including Julie White as Jeremy’s mom, who believes her son is gay by virtue of a very convincing performance he once gave as a gay character; Jeremy shrugs it off saying, “My mom…really likes the idea of being accepting …”) It’s also the way Koskoff and Louiso’s script finds humanity and humor in real behavior, not the strained and phony movie version of the same. A friend referred to the film negatively as “that rich, white people problems movie,” but a lot of the behavior in the film would play out the same way if the Minskys were more blue collar than white, more striving than well-off. (Whether financially successful or financially ruined, no one wants to spend three months on their parent’s couch at 35).
“Hello I Must Be Going” is frank and funny about sex (including a hilarious and perfectly-timed P.O.V. joke that would expire through further explanation), but it’s also as heartfelt as it is horny. Amy says to Jeremy “…you taught me how to be loved,” with true sincerity, and you can see him feel that — even as he shakes his head appreciatively and ruefully, saying “Man…that’s good.” And while Amy is lightly battered by her mom’s unkind observations and supported by her dad’s reserved love — expressed mainly in mutual viewings of Marx Brothers films, hence the title — the film also shows that Amy isn’t the only person here with discontents and despair, flaws and failings. Warm and funny, real and raw, “Hello I Must Be Going” deserves a hearty welcome from moviegoers looking for an honest and frank comedy that never forgets to help us care about its characters. [B+]