For all of the ground that writer/director Jeff Lipsky covers in Flannel Pajamas -- they meet, they date, they fall in love, they live together, they marry, it all falls apart -- I somehow felt at the end like I'd just spent two hours running in place.
Couples get together all the time when we know they shouldn't. Most of them disintegrate, except for the ones that don't. Indeed, anything's possible in human relationships, although most of the time, we know what will happen, and we know why: People are more of a puzzle than a mystery, and once you have all the pieces, the picture becomes clear.
Here, the couple is Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) and Stuart (Justin Kirk), two New Yorkers in their 30s. She's from Montana, the daughter of a large close family of siblings and their tranquil, menacing Catholic hypocrite mother (Rebecca Schull), with whom Nicole has both a stifling attachment and myriad unexplored issues. He's Jewish, and very successful at marketing mediocre Broadway plays to tourist groups by making up fabulous lies about their provenance.
He's also very charming, and she's easily charmed. But we can see that she has low self-esteem, and that he's passive-aggressive, and manipulative in small insidious ways. This all remains unacknowledged for the longest time, and they seem to have nothing satisfying between them but sex. That may be Lipsky's point, although it feels more like he simply doesn't bother to dig a little deeper and have them fail to connect in meaningful ways. In the course of the three years they spend together, each changes a little, if not necessarily for the better. That, I suppose, is what we want from good drama.
Scene by scene, Flannel Pajamas offers copious insights, but it's finally too meticulous to have a thoroughgoing sense of life. The first half is Annie Hall, just not a comedy; the second half re-imagines A Woman Under the Influence, the 1974 John Cassavetes drama on which a nascent Lipsky worked under its pioneering creator. The two halves simply don't mesh, each a noticeably pale imitation of its progenitor.
Lipsky's unadorned direction gives the sensation of intimacy and natural space, yet you can sense the contrivance in every handsomely framed shot. His very good actors are comfortable with their roles and their lines, probably because they come from a theater background, and so they're accustomed to saying dialogue that's just a little too perfect.
For a much better small, serious movie about relationships, we need look no further back than Miranda July's absorbing Me and You and Everyone We Know. There's barely a word in that movie that anyone might actually speak in what we call real life, and yet every moment feels excitingly real. In the far less satisfying paradox of Flannel Pajamas, Lipsky tries so hard that he ends up not trying hard enough.
Starts Fri., March 9. SouthSide Works