By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 13, 2012 at 12:45PM
Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics listed in Indiewire’s Criticwire Network discuss a recent topic from the film world with Indiewire’s film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Hollywood and Fine film critic Marshall Fine and Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez discuss Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister," which opens in several cities Friday.
If audiences were to attend Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister" based solely on the poster or the trailer, they might expect a pretty average chick flick. Neither of those marketing tools tell you about Shelton's experimental production method, which is entirely based around improvisation. In interviews, she has credited sibling directors Jay and Mark Duplass (the latter co-stars in "Your Sister's Sister") with opening her eyes to this approach, and she first applied it in her previous movie, "Humpday." Her latest project is interesting partly because the cast contains two relatively big movie stars, Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt, and finds them adhering to the kind of approach not usually associated with this genre or celebrity performances in general.
Marshall, since you authored a terrific book about John Cassavetes a few years ago, do you see any connections between Shelton's loose, improvisational process and Cassavetes' own use of similar techniques? Or is it sacrilegious to even think in those terms? Either way, as a fan of her films, do you see her as an innovator or essentially a comedy filmmaker who just gives her actors more freedom than most directors?
MARSHALL FINE: It's not sacrilegious to mention Lynn Shelton and John Cassavetes in the same sentence. Her movies deal in the same kind of "in the moment" humanity of her characters that Cassavetes' did. The difference is that, over the years, the myth has grown that Cassavetes' improvisation involved making the film up as the actors went along, which was untrue: In fact, Cassavetes' films were very scripted. The improvisation came in the performances and the blocking; actors were free to go wherever felt right and the cameraman was instructed to follow. In other words, Cassavetes wanted to capture the performance in all its freedom and not constrict the actor with hitting a mark or finding a key light.
By contrast, Shelton's work is, in many ways, much more daring, because, while working from a plot outline, the actors create the dialogue themselves. When I interviewed her about this film, she admitted that she had scripted certain bits of dialogue for the actresses but that, after a while, they were able to swing with the improv style the same way the Duplass brothers did.
Interestingly, when I interviewed Mark Duplass recently about "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," he also said that their style was to script thoroughly and let the actors take it from there.
As for the marketing of this film, it's a disservice to market it as a chick flick, which it's not, in any sense that I understand the term.
Rene, you praised "Humpday" in your review of that film for "illustrating how men often can't help but behave like stubborn children in the company of their friends -- even when the stakes are raised to ridiculous levels." Would you say that "Your Sister's Sister" makes similarly shrewd observations? And how does it compare to other romantic comedies released today?
RENE RODRIGUEZ: I've always thought the whole "mumblecore" movement -- a term I don't like and usually try to avoid -- was essentially a repackaging and rebranding of Cassavetes' style, but with wackier conceits and less insight and substance. "Your Sister's Sister" is a perfect example of what I mean: The movie opens with a great scene in which a group of people gather to toast and commemorate the memory of their mutual friend Tom, who died a year ago. The acting is natural and spontaneous. You don't know any of these characters yet, but Shelton is able to create an immediate emotional intimacy: You feel like you're sitting there in that living room with them. Then the tone becomes excruciatingly awkward when Tom's brother (played by Mark Duplass), who is still dealing with unresolved grief and resentment, delivers a less-than-flattering eulogy. It's a great opening, but the rest of the movie doesn't live up to it.
I liked Shelton's "Humpday" a lot because despite its ridiculous premise, the movie said a lot about the way men relate to each other -- especially men who are approaching middle age, have been friends since childhood and feel an instinctive need to act out and misbehave whenever they get together as a way of hanging on to their youth. Shelton's female perspective gave the movie a fresh and engaging point of view: It didn't feel like just another film about boys behaving badly.
But for all its naturalistic style and improvised dialogue, "Your Sister's Sister" felt to me like a high-concept Hollywood comedy that has practically nothing to say. The movie ties itself into improbable knots to strand the characters in uncomfortable situations. Duplass loves Emily Blunt, but she used to date his brother, so instead he hooks up with her sister Rosemary DeWitt, who happens to be a lesbian -- a vegan lesbian! Everything in this movie feels so practical and neat, it's maddening. The characters are staying in a vacation home where there is no TV or Wi-fi, so they have no way to entertain themselves other than to stay up late drinking, and you know what that always leads to! DeWitt is on the rebound from a failed relationship, so that's why she's open to the idea of sleeping with a man. You make do with what you've got, right? Blunt and Duplass have feelings for each other, but neither one is willing to voice them, because if they did the movie would be over. Somehow, this movie manages to feel less credible than "Humpday," and that one was about two straight guys who decide to film a gay porno!
Put it another way: I really liked the Duplass brothers' "Cyrus," which explored the emotional discomfort of a man dating a single mom with an overprotective, grown son. I did not like "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" because it was filled with situations and coincidences that were so far-fetched, the movie bordered on science-fiction. I'm all for low-budget, naturalistic filmmaking, but the filmmaker needs to have something substantial to say, or present us with an indelible character (e.g. Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence") or at least provide us with an interesting scenario (the horror movie elements of "Baghead"). "Your Sister's Sister" is just another tiresome movie about people whose inability to communicate creates big problems, until they finally decide to talk to each other. Cue the happy (and risible) ending.