Otto Wall, the person at the center of “Goodbye to All That,” lauded playwright and “Junebug” scribe Angus MacLachlan’s directorial debut, is a limited man — the type of man who just goes along with the flow, who doesn’t try to ruffle feathers. He’s not stupid, but neither is he gifted with remarkable intelligence. He has a good job, an attractive if quite possibly overbearing wife (Melanie Lynskey) and an adorable, auburn-haired daughter who is quickly turning into a North Carolina methodist. He’s lucky, at least until he isn’t.
Played with gentle moxie by Paul Schneider, in what amounts to his most memorable motion picture role since Dick Liddl in “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford,” Otto is clumsy and kind and more than easy to root for. He’ll need it: Otto’s life begins to fall to pieces shortly after the opening frames. An athletic outdoorsman type – we first meet him as he completes a 5K – Otto is heading out on a camping trip with a friend and his daughter when the friend drives their off-road vehicle too fast and crashes in a nearby forest, injuring Otto’s foot. While he’s recovering, his pensive wife demands that he meet her at the office of her therapist (Celia Weston), who informs Otto that his wife wants a divorce, suddenly and inexplicably. Taken completely by surprise, Otto is cast out into bachelorhood, which he discovers is much different than it was when he was younger. Entering the world of Facebook stalking and OKCupid profiles, Otto finds plenty of sex, but meaningful connections are harder to come by.
MacLachlan returns us once again to the mid-size North Carolina towns that were such an evocative backdrop for “Junebug,” one of the great underheralded indies of the aughts. As in the previous film, a breezy tone and self-effacing but sophisticated visual style allows darker undercurrents to sit comfortably beneath the action, seeping out in unexpected bursts of emotion that unsettle and refocus MacLachlan’s often symmetrical widescreen compositions. His brand of comedy grows out of the eccentricities of his memorable characters. Who can forget (among the few who saw it) Scott Wilson’s father, who secretly paints birds, or the warehouse store employee, who watches the Panthers Super Bowl appearance over and over, hoping they’ll win this time, or the outsider artist with a penchant for racist tangents and sudden prayers — all of whom made up the local color in “Junebug”?
This time out, MacLachlan presents a gallery of women, drawn with the detail and humorous intimacy often missing from portrayals of modern Western ladies in a film with a male protagonist. The movie launches Wall on a “Broken Flowers”-esque trip through his romantic past and the wilds of the arranged online hookup future, eventually suggesting that romantic happiness comes in many shapes and sizes, that being a good man and a sexual adventurist aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
After a quick fling with a recently divorced blonde whom he dated in high school (Heather Graham), Otto opens up a rotation of sorts: a redhead with a penchant for kink (Ashley Hinshaw) who wants little else but evocative sex (“you’re kind of a disaster, but a one helluva fuck,” she tells him without pulling a punch) and a pious blonde named Debbie Spengler (a terrific Anna Camp) who will make sure you never forget her name: She’s always introducing herself (“I’m Debbie Spengler”), both in the bedroom and out. But even though she’s a spitfire in the sack, be careful when you find her crying after a bible-reading session the next morning – where the film gets terrific comedic mileage out of revealing each female suitor’s baggage and idiosyncrasies to great comedic effect.
Otto’s sights are soon set on a long lost love interest from a summer camp he attended in high school, played with great emotional insight by the comedian Heather Lawless, as a woman who has also recently found herself single and nearing forty, mourning a dead child and looking for a new start. Not reinventing the wheel by any stretch, the picture wins us over to the idea that they ought to be together quite effortlessly, while Otto goes about cleaning up the various messes in his life; his daughter increasingly doesn’t want to stay at his new house because of all his late night dalliances and his wife, who seems incapable of uttering a sentence that doesn’t come across as a passive-aggressive reprimand and all too frequently changing the terms of their separation, is someone Otto needs to learn to stand up to.
The constituent parts of MacLachlan’s film might not seem like much on their own; together they make up to a remarkably fresh and dynamic whole. “Goodbye to All That” is the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood makes (poorly) for female audiences all the time: Will our fetching but troubled heroine land Mr. Right?
Rarely does such a picture come along that asks the same questions for a man. Even rarer does one come along with this much grit, intelligence and genuine insight into the Western sexual mores of the 21st century. A paean to an age when lust is easy and love is as hard as ever, “Goodbye to All That” is the sort of picture that if you’re not careful will charm the pants right off of you.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A Tribeca Film Festival world premiere, “Goodbye to All That” is likely to find its way into theaters with a modest distribution plan but could find solid returns on VOD.