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January 15, 2002 2:00 AM
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Park City 2002: "Love in The Time of Money"; Peter Mattei's Take on Gotham's Eight Million Stories

Park City 2002: "Love in The Time of Money"; Peter Mattei's Take on Gotham's Eight Million Stories

by Ray Pride




(indieWIRE/01.15.02) -- Before the Sundance debut of "Love in the Time of Money," New York playwright Peter Mattei's accomplished first feature, festival co-director Geoffrey Gilmore coined a distressing phrase: "the web of life film."


It's a pretty flat tag for the burgeoning genre of ensemble pieces that work to demonstrate all collective interconnectedness within a chancy, chance-filled universe. Jill Sprecher's "13 Conversations About One Thing," also debuting at Sundance, works in this style as well. Mattei's debut, which was developed at the Sundance Lab in 1998, draws from the grandfather of this tradition, "Reigen," Arthur Schnitzler's jab at all that was rotten about sexual mores in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. The great underlying fear in that oft-adapted play (best known as "La Ronde," the title under which Max Ophuls' elegant 1950 adaptation was released) is the potential for crippling sexual disease; "Love in the Time of Money" concerns loneliness, and how money and careerism only made it worse in the 1990s. And while no new ground is broken in the film, Mattei exhibits a subtle command of craft throughout.


Episodic structure holds dramatic risks. It's difficult to sustain interest without a single protagonist to carry the story, and it often proves difficult to keep characters lively and not subservient to a complicated structure. Indeed, what comes "La Ronde" often goes "La Ronde." Mattei, a successful stage director and founder of Manhattan's Cucaracha Theatre, manages by looking to master dramatists like Chekhov, who is referenced by one of the film's characters. Whenever Mattei's dialogue begins teetering toward theatricality or facile whimsy, an unexpected shift occurs to reveal a gratifying new element that deepens the dramatic texture.


The fine cast includes anxious-eyed Vera Farmiga as a fledgling prostitute, Domenick Lombardozzi as a rather confused contractor, Jill Hennessy as the dissatisfied wife of a wealthy contractor, Steve Buscemi as a painter who becomes taken with a gallery receptionist played by Rosario Dawson, and Adrian Grenier as Dawson's goofball pretty-boy boyfriend. Dawson's character wanders the city, telling her story to a flighty telephone psychic played by Carol Kane.


But it's not all text and theme: Mattei includes precise bits of imagery, including a stylized, beautifully-shot bar flirtation-cum-negotiation, where light bounces off $12 martinis onto the faces of Buscemi and Dawson; the same scene has a telling moment when the lines of an ink drawing melt away in a puddle of bar-top condensation.


Shot on digital video (this is the latest production from Open City's Blow Up Pictures enterprise) Mattei and cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski take advantage of video's limitations and strengths. The use of dark streets and dim apartments is canny, and production designer Susan Block's decors are spare but spot-on. Another gratifying element is the sound design, which exploits the constant din of city sound in the background: car horns, traffic, sirens, backing-up warnings -- a skittery counterpoint to the scattered characters. Other lives can be half-heard in the distance, yet everyone remains alone, in the compartments of the story's form, in the contours of their need, alone among others in this lonely metropolis, comprised of nine scenes and nine million souls.


[Ray Pride is film editor of Chicago's Newcity. He is also a contributing editor of Filmmaker and Cinema Scope, and a filmmaker.]

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