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Stream of the Day: ‘Flannel Pajamas’ Turns a Doomed Marriage Into a Revelation

Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson prove that even a bad relationship is sometimes worth the effort in Jeff Lipsky's drama, now free on Vimeo.

“Flannel Pajamas”

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Relationship dramas have been done and redone so many times over that the premise of “Flannel Pajamas” may sound untenable, but give it time, and Jeff Lipsky’s talky romance finds its purpose. When indie distribution maverick-turned-filmmaker Lipsky’s 2006 sophomore feature premiered in U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance, it coincided with the early stirrings of lo-fi American cinema later dubbed “mumblecore,” and at first blush may look a lot less ambitious. A two-hour chronicle of lovebirds Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) and Stuart (Justin Kirk), the movie sees the pair finding immediate chemistry on a blind date, vibing with their respective families, and speeding into an ill-advised marriage that gradually disintegrates from the moment it begins. All along, they talk, talk, talk — enough to make the protagonists of “Before Sunrise” look like introverts.

That might seem like a death sentence, the material for a formless and derivative drama in search of good ideas, but “Flannel Pajamas” turns that very quest into its main directive. Driven by the gregarious Stuart’s overconfidence and Nicole’s mounting skepticism, “Flannel Pajamas” slowly transforms the concept of a broken marriage into a revelation.

Kirk, who had won recent acclaim for HBO’s “Angels in America” adaptation and his show-stealing turn on “Weeds,” always projects the confidence of a charlatan who buries his sadness in smarmy asides. “Flannel Pajamas” digs deep on that tendency, while casting Nicole as the enchanted object of his affection eventually frustrated by his outsized presence. The pair meet at a diner, set up by their mutual therapist for obvious reasons: Opposites attract, and sometimes, one compliments the other. 

“I talk faster than most people think,” says Stuart, a Broadway marketer who excels at spinning stories for a living. Nicole stares back with an intrigued half-smile, eager to absorb his rapid-fire cadences and break them down from the inside-out.

And so she does, forcing Stuart to come out of his safety zone and reveal the complex, flawed human being that she knows he is. That outcome is both a testament to their bond and what makes it hard to last, because Stuart doesn’t exactly like having himself exposed, and would rather avoid hard conversations than get deep. “Flannel Pajamas” gathers one scene after another through a series of undefined time jumps, from holiday gatherings to celebratory nuptials and one devastating funeral, as the movie takes a deep look at the oscillating moods of romance and the complex network of developments that often cause them to unwind.

Eventually, the story settles into a routine set of conflicts — specifically whether or not the couple wants kids — and when it meanders, it really meanders. Mostly, though, “Flannel Pajamas” unfurls as a slow-motion investigation into the root causes behind these familiar circumstances and why these characters didn’t seem them coming sooner.

Lipsky’s script excels at exploring how people can be ravaged by the worlds they come from, no matter how hard they try to pave their own paths. Stuart’s crude suicidal brother (Jamie Harrold) puts it best: “You know the biggest problem with the gene pool? There’s no lifeguard.” By the time Nicole’s mother (Rebecca Schull) arrives with a disturbing monologue about the cultural differences that guarantee the relationship will fail, she’s practically like a Greek chorus in this epic tale of bonds coming undone. It’s a tragedy about tradition that forces viewers to contemplate how much they may be prisoners of their own.

When it was first released, many critics made unfavorable comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” and of course, who can compete with that? But “Flannel Pajamas” relies on an intimate, character-based rhythms that work on their own terms (and, with its flat visual style that treasures words and faces over all else, actually suggest a closer connection to the chatty narratives of Eric Rohmer). It may be a messy collection of moments, but then again, so are many relationships. “Flannel Pajamas” makes that point above all, and even manages to find a silver lining, delivering a gratifying celebration of companionship that’s worth the effort even if it’s doomed from the start.

“Flannel Pajamas” is available for free on Vimeo for the month of April. Watch it here.

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