There are two types of intolerable people, and they’re both present in “Life Partners.” This comedy depicts a friendship between two grown women, both of whom find themselves shifting in different directions. Responsible Paige (Gillian Jacobs) has a regular 9-to-5 position at a law firm, while social gadfly Sasha (Leighton Meester) toils away at a thankless receptionist job, and while neither of these jobs should define these characters, they inevitably do. This shorthand complicates a potentially fine source of drama, because Paige is straight and Sasha is gay.
On the cusp of thirty, both girls find themselves settling into familiar routines, and it’s here where those intolerable types manifest. The tomboyish Sasha spends days at a local lesbian bar with a Greek chorus of over-dramatic friends, prattling on about her daily annoyances and frequently refreshing her Facebook page, now permanently shrugging off her initial dreams of being a singer-songwriter. Paige herself doesn’t seem to have much of a lifestyle, however, beyond junk food binging with Sasha and talking over “America’s Next Top Model.” The unspoken truth is that Paige has begun to tire of others. She already has a house in suburbia, and avoiding others is second nature: she seems to have introduced herself to a neighbor (Mark Feuerstein) by accidentally running into his car. Somehow, her refusal to pay for repairs is treated as a relevant subplot.
This is another independent film where obstacles come equipped with traffic signs so you note them far ahead, minutes before arrival. Supporting characters frequently fall into sketch caricature: “SNL” vets Kate McKinnon and Abby Elliot stop by as two of Sasha’s preening, oblivious conquests, neither given a chance to create a real person out of a collection of tics. And the spastic Tim (Adam Brody) represents not exactly love for Paige, but stability, even though he has an endless array of joke t-shirts and a habit of uncomfortably quoting movies in conversation. There’s a kernel of truth to his sitcom-y apoplexy when he is stunned to find out Paige has only seen half of “The Big Lebowski.”
Of course, these are also the sort of characters who talk and laugh over “The Big Lebowski” as if it was some dimwit laugh riot. Tim doesn’t watch the film, he “meme-watches” the film, talking back to the screen and murmuring “so great, so great” at his favorite parts. It feels like a cheap wedge between Sasha and Paige that she would enjoy the company of this white-collar square, one who calls a Coen Brothers film his favorite, but also goes around quoting “Talladega Nights.” By the time Tim places golf clubs in his trunk, it feels like an obvious tipoff about how we’re supposed to feel about him: the picture is consistently moments away from just calling him a Republican. Brody remains an excessively superficial screen personality who has become kryptonite to small indies. If you’re wondering if he can bring humanity to this character, clearly you’ve never seen a movie that Brody has ruined, which is to say you may never have seen a movie with Adam Brody.
There’s something vaguely discomforting about the movie’s dismissal of Sasha’s lifestyle and acceptance of Paige’s fairly common heterosexual courtship. Most of Sasha’s friends and conquests never feel like three-dimensional people. An exception is a fellow barfly played by Gabourey Sidibe, the only real element in a film packed to the brim with TV-style quipping and forced slapstick. She spends most of her screen time sitting by the two leads and reacting silently. Her body language is limited, but she’s always doing something, always thinking something, her eyes narrow, her diplomatic silences saying more than any dialogue in the rest of the film. Of course, the film eventually discards her as she contributes to an out-of-character third act betrayal. What’s this character’s story? “Life Partners” ultimately implies that a homosexual lifestyle is one of frivolity and unemployment, while heterosexuality is a more “proper” way of living.
Ultimately, it’s the sort of film where music montages are used like wallpaper to take narrative shortcuts and minimize messy conflict. It’s unfortunate, since close mutual relationships between homosexuals and heterosexuals are heavily prevalent in society but rarely onscreen, the gay character often relegated to supporting character status. But no one ever even hints that maybe one is smitten with the other, under the assumption that they have always been platonic friends who have frequent sleepovers. It seems naive at best, dim at worst: we’re not there yet as a society where that doesn’t feel like a potentially rich subplot chucked away for a film that merely follows the inoffensive indie handbook about friends growing apart in unremarkable ways. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.