by Jay Seaver
SCREENED AT THE 2005 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: "Four Lane Highway" is the kind of independent film that appeals to the independent film fans as a clique. Its characters are almost all artists of some sort; it's all about relationships and personal weakness rather than about facing some challenge from without. Part of it takes place against the backdrop of a New York "scene" (in this case, the art scene, but the specifics aren't terribly important). It's the kind of film that gets most of its audience at festivals, after which the audience falls all over themselves to say how great it is that there are TRUE ARTISTS out there making SMART films about PEOPLE. And they're right; it is nice for this kind of film to get made, even if this particular example is not exactly exceptional.Sean (Frederick Weller) and Lyle (Reg Rogers) are educated, articulate men of around thirty who live in a small Maine college town and mostly put their brains to use chatting up college girls. As Sean is leaving making his way off campus one morning, he sees a sign about a former faculty member's gallery show in New York. This artist is his former girlfriend Molly (Greer Goodman), who left him two years ago. He decides to drive to New York to confront her, or see her work, or something. Lyle tags along, and we flash back to how the relationship started and how it fell apart.
"Made for festival audiences, and pretty much just them."
This is, for the most part, an actors' movie, and leads Weller and Goodman are excellent choices for their roles. They're good-looking, of course, but not model-pretty; a fair amount of Goodman's expressiveness is derived from the lines around her eyes. She's often a better actress than she at first appears, with her early line readings seeming sort of flat, or a little bit more heartfelt than they need to be. It's the style of acting one might associate with the theater, but also somewhat appropriate because we first see her in Sean's flashbacks, and I imagine that in those we're often seeing an idealized version of her - or at least an idealized pest, when she tries to convince him to start writing again. She becomes much more nuanced and natural when we meet her in the present day.
Weller (not the one in Robocop) plays the character we spend the most time following, and Sean's an interesting enough specimen. Sean is a blue-collar guy partly by choice and partly by default, and he hits the combination pretty much spot-on, projecting an uncomplicated image but able to pull out the intellect when necessary (and even then, when he explains why he doesn't particularly like sculpture to a snotty art writer, it's not using big words, but making a strong argument). He makes a perfectly miserable drunk, which is appropriate. He communicates feelings well, which is the most important part of the job for this role.
Decent, but somewhat less impressive, are Reg Rogers and Elizabeth Rodriguez as the roommates. These are characters that exist mostly to give the principals someone to talk to (or, more often, lectured by), although they also serve as surrogates by which director writer/director Dylan McCormick can talk about addictions. Rogers's Lyle is an alcoholic, constantly with a drink in his hand, and though he's usually the cheerful, friendly type of drunk, he's a pathetic figure. Too much of the last act of the movie, when we really should be concentrating on what's going on with Sean and Molly, is spent on him being taken to task, hitting bottom, trying to get help, etc. Indeed, Drink seems to be the root of all evil in the film's latter half, as Lyle crashes, we see that Sean was drinking during most of the times things went wrong with Molly, we're told his no-good father was a drunk, and the bartender who has kicked the habit solemnly tells us that it isn't the solution to one's problems. There's nothing wrong with a pro-sobriety message, but if Sean's drinking was the main problem in the relationship, that's not very interesting; and if not, then that's a lot of late-movie time spent on a secondary issue. In contrast, the promiscuity of Rodriguez's Sasha is hit just often enough to be distracting, but never amounts to much other than her looking at a passed-out Lyle with a look on her face that says "wow, in my own way I'm as pathetic as him!"
So if the conflict doesn't arise from the drinking, what is its source? Apparently, Molly's conviction that Sean isn't reaching his potential because he hasn't written in years, because he fears being unable to live up to his famous-writer father (who told Sean that his first story was only published as a curiosity, since he's the son of the man who wrote "Four Lane Highway"). The trouble is - we are never given any reason to believe that Sean is any kind of gifted writer. We don't read his writing, or hear it read; we just see him freeze up when asked to tell his nieces a story. So, if the audience is thinking "damn, woman, just accept that not everybody is some kind of artist and leave him alone! No wonder he feels driven to drink!", isn't it kind of pathetic that he's crawling back to her two years later? What should be evidence of growth and maturation looks a bit like spinelessness. Perhaps even worse, it's not Molly's confidence that spurs him to change, but something which, if he really had matured, wouldn't have so much of an effect.
As much chemistry as Weller and Goodman may have - and one does get a warm fuzzy when seeing them together during the good times - it's not really a relationship worth rooting for. It should be, but the fairly major miscalculation of spending more time on drinking than writing sabotages a potentially very good movie. It's a shame, because it's well-shot and acted, with both the New York and "Maine" (actually Chatham, NY) locations nicely chosen. McCormick has a knack for showing how fine the border between homey & comfortable and run-down can be, both in the New York trendy lofts hidden behind grafitti and how Sean's house looks when he's with Molly compared to after she leaves.So, it's not a particularly GREAT movie about relationships and people, but neither is it a notably bad one. It's just got a lot of room for improvement.
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originally posted: 09/16/05 20:17:15