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Matt Perry, Uncomfortably Numb

Matthew Perry, smoked out in Harris Goldberg's Numb

By Michelle Orange

From this afternoon’s random sampling one might deduce that, like slime mold, all the sad young men have picked up and headed for the water. California, to be exact. Numb, Good Time Max, and In Search of a Midnight Kiss all seemed to have a bizarre number of things in common: dysfunctional men who move to Los Angeles; mothers who are either cold bitches or fare-thee-well featherweight and fathers who are absent or oblivious; a woman who’s going to fix everything (OK, only two of them have that); and a key character reference made via masturbation (one wants to jerk off on a bunny rabbit, another to his roommate’s girlfriend and the third to a three-second snippet of porn on a loop). I’m not even sure what all of this means, but it was too obvious not to note. Especially that last one. I only know one guy in LA, and I feel like I should give him a call. Maybe I can tell him about slime mold, it’s about the grossest thing I’ve ever heard.

I have to admit I have always had a soft spot for Matthew Perry, and though I mourn the loss of his chin, I still find him a very appealing comic presence, one fizzing with the uncomfortable zetz of darker terrain. In Numb, a Canadian film directed and written by Harris Goldberg, Perry jumps at the chance to go deep, though the film keeps some softball humor at the ready. Perry plays Hudson, a moderately depressed screenwriter who (over)smokes a joint and is sent over the edge into what is diagnosed as “depersonalization disorder.” Desperate not just to feel like himself again but to feel anything at all, Hudson seeks out a variety of treatments, and a host of drugs, running the shrink circuit like the unholy gauntlet the filmmaker apparently believes it to be.

When Hudson meets Sara (Tori Amos look-alike Lynn Collins), the need to get better becomes imperative; they trade flaws (he compares her to a lion, she insists he looks like an owl), watch the golf channel and tiptoe around what is clearly Hudson’s crippling issue. The problem (other than the fact that if Perry resembles anything it is -– as I have maintained for over a decade –- Beaker from The Muppet Show) is not the warm zip of chemistry between the two leads, but the unsteady handling of what is being presented as a serious problem with serious ramifications on the one hand but possibly just a bad patch on the other. Goldberg works in some really funny moments with Kevin Pollak as Hudson’s writing partner, and a hilarious turn by Mary Steenburgen, and Hudson’s frustration, which leads him to extremes in behavior to feel normal, is credible, but the resolution seems to undercut Hudson’s struggle to have his suffering taken seriously. It felt too easy to me, possibly because I began to root for the film, which musters a fair share of charm nevertheless.

Charm is the operative trait of the title character in James Franco’s Good Time Max, despite said character’s frequent protestations of genius. Max (played by Franco) and his brother Adam (Matt Bell) are both bright boys, though Max is a natural, while Adam sweats for every half a grade. For some reason (cold bitch mother + oblivious father?) wunderkind Max turns cokehead almost out of middle school, and when his giant brain fails to keep him from getting in a shitload of trouble, he tags along with his brother, who is heading to LA for a medical residency.

The fantastically handsome Franco, in a pair of look-at-my-nerdy-glasses (Adam wears them too), still has that jumpy, obstinate teenaged quality that has recently mellowed in its last best incarnation, Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s fun to watch the new leaf Max try to hold down an engineering job, and the office scenes are unexpectedly fresh even in their staleness. “Drugs are bad,” Max says, when propositioned by a co-worker. Well, yeah. What else? In due time, however, Max is back on the crack (or rather, the brain-eating crystal meth), and though we are meant to feel a greater sense of tragedy in Max betraying his brother’s trust, their bond is not established strongly enough to allow for it. Franco is clearly an involved, energetic director, though he does fall prey to the young director’s penchant for rock-and-roll, druggy-wuggy sequences (a couple of them find the twittering high of a drug haze very well-observed). The performances and direction are strong, but the material doesn’t quite measure up; just when you are beginning to think the film is going nowhere and taking a long time to get there (drugs are bad), Franco has Dr. Adam and Max do a switcheroo that is an even harder pill to swallow (ahem) than what has come before.

Of these three films, none show off Los Angeles to the (haunting) extent of In Search of a Midnight Kiss, a film I was ready to lose my patience with early on, but that settled into a less congratulatory, astringent tone as it progressed. Writer/director Alex Holdridge’s obvious love/hate relationship with LA comes through in the creepy, beautiful and creepily beautiful exteriors shot in Woody Allen black and white; the script is more Before Sunset, minus the charm and the rapport. But that seems to be the point, at least initially, for Wilson (Scoot McNairy), another down and out screenwriter bonging the days away in his shitty flat. On New Year’s Eve he is goaded into putting an ad on Craigslist for a date, and a shrill, psycho actress takes him up on it. The two are all corners for a while, walking and driving through LA and exchanging deadly trite dialogue and wondering who will be first to beg off; romance, it seems, is dead, and Wilson in particular is prone, even in his loneliness, to move straight to vulgarity. As the night goes on (will they make it to midnight, is the question), Holdridge begins to try to cash emotional checks that are unsigned, but the actors seem to get their footing as the material warms up -– perhaps just as two strangers might. I enjoyed seeing that strange, picture postcard LA light subverted in the black-and-white photography, and the conclusion does manage a rather nice melancholy high.

If the idea behind Yael Luttwak’s documentary, A Slim Peace, seems outrageous –- uniting Arab and Jewish in Jerusalem in the common goal of a smaller ass –- the execution is nuanced with wit and passion. Luttwak convinced Israelis, Palestinian, a Bedouin and two settlers (some of the women were religious and some not) to join a sort of weight watchers group, though her disingenuous claim that the group will not be political is immediately questioned by the Bedouin woman, who agrees to it nevertheless. Those there women all live quite close to each other, some of the Jews claim to have never met an Arab, and vice versa. In the run-up to and aftermath of the Palestinian election, which saw Hamas put into power, tensions ranneth over the ostensible chatter about fiber grams and calorie counts. Luttwak’s subjects are staunch women, fascinating subjects all, especially when, after the group disbands, most of them acknowledge that their superficial commonalities will never bridge their deep divides. This is a rare look at how life is lived by the middle class in this region; the native Israeli woman was surprised to find that she had more in common with the Arab from Ramallah than the humorless American Super-Jews from the settlement, and you might be too.

Autism: The Musical (yikes) is Tricia Regan’s documentary about one woman’s vision for a host of autistic children, including her son, to put together a musical performance, against the odds. Following five children from their homes to the rehearsal space and back again, the faces of the parents are uniformly heartbreaking, but even the slightest sign of a child emerging from the locked in chambers of their brain provides immense relief. The statistics on autism are beyond alarming, and hopefully works like this (flashy title and all) will bring attention to the ramifications not just for the families but society at large.

In Take the Bridge,Sergio Castilla’s intent debut, four young people attempt suicide in New York’s highly Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood, and are rather crudely united at the hospital. Unlikely friendships form, along with alliances in the struggle for a better life. The blocky dialogue of what seem to be reenactments (the film is narrated by a Dominican woman who shows up intermittently as a talking [gossiping] head in black and white) work against the game cast and heartfelt look at the fight to get out of (or fit back into) the hood.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Numb
Good Time Max
In Search of a Midnight Kiss
A Slim Peace
Autism: The Musical
Take the Bridge

Posted at May 2, 2007 8:01 AM

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