Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Jeff Lipsky's back with MAD WOMEN, another unusual, dark and semi-transgressive film

Jeff Lipsky -- who, some years ago, gave us the exquisitely-attuned-to-characterization-and-behavior drama Flannel Pajamas -- is back this summer with a new envelope-pushing film called MAD WOMEN. The women in question are a mother-daughter pair brought to fine life by a combination of acting chops and Lipsky's hallmark ability to cast with an eye for both oddity and truth. The result is a movie that bears all of this writer/director's best abilities, along with some of his limitations, as well.

As good as Lipsky's movies often are in terms of characterization and performance -- the filmmaker is shown at left -- they tend to go on well past their running time's expiration date (Mad Women is his lengthiest so far at 131 minutes). This time, however, there's something noticeably missing that finally becomes a deal-breaker: Mad Women lacks the propulsion necessary to drive the film forward. Consequently, we get oodles of character quirks, smart dialog and subjects worth exploring (including a first-time-on-film sexual connection, along with life as seen by both voyeurs and participants), yet the outcome is generally listless.

I suspect this is due more to Lipsky's decision to split the plot and narrative into two camps -- that of the mother's and the daughter's -- than to anything else. Mad Women tracks three generations of hugely narcissistic women (there's a grandmother involved, as well) and their failure to properly connect with their men or even with society on some necessary level. Mom (the quite interesting actress Christina Starbuck, above), is a former jailbird now running for mayor of one of those "ideal" little towns that used to be found around the USA.

The movie comes back again and again to a certain time and place (above) in which she addresses her well-wishing audience members and explains to them her stance on various issues. (She appears both progressive and a little crazy -- which is maybe the only legitimate reaction to our current state-of-the-nation.)

Her daughter Nevada (Kelsey Lynn Stokes, above), smart but stunted, has taken to babysitting as an occupation, until the man of her dreams walks over to introduce himself, at which point a budding love story begins to bloom.

Dad (Lipsky regular and consummate actor Reed Birney, above) connects the two women and has his own back story -- which we get, as with all the stories, mostly via exposition (Lipsky is not fan of the show-don't-tell school of film-making).  While each of these three character's back stories are fascinating and uber-quirky, none get the depth we need to truly understand or empathize.

This is particularly true of the envelope-pushing connection that two of these characters share, which -- according to the press materials -- could be the real deal-breaker for audiences, just as it might be for Nevada's new boyfriend (played by a high-voiced hunk named Eli Percy, above). It's not, however, because, like so much else in this movie, it simply sits there: announced but unexplored.

Lipsky seems to want to address humanity's hypocrisies, and god knows, there are  plenty of them here into which to delve. (That's grandma, above, played by Sharon Van Ivan -- of whom we know the least, save for a single important hypocrisy.) Yet the route the filmmaker takes doesn't pay off much, due to our hearing about all the "big and important stuff" via exposition, while leaving out so much else that might pull us into the lives of these people. That said, Lipsky does manage a quietly subversive denouement, bringing together a few of the themes he's announced previously.

The performances are all as good as you could ask for, under the circumstances. Mr. Birney, with his cool grace and stability pretty much holds the film together, even though his character is the least filled-out of the three family members. Stokes and Percy are fun to watch, too, while Starbuck is good enough to make you wish we could enter her character's life and history more fully.

If you're already a Lipsky fan, you'll want to try Mad Women. But I suspect newcomers to his work might better start with his earlier Pajamas. The movie opens this Friday, July 10, at the Village East Cinema in New York City, on July 17 at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington, NY, and at the Sundance Cinemas in Los Angeles on July 24th, followed by a limited national release in August.

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