Those families are the Bartletts and the Braggs, neighbors on Long Island, one family on their way into good fortune and the other on their way out of it. Mickey Bartlett (Alec Baldwin) is a real estate developer with a history of stepping out on his wife (Jill Hennessy), though his indiscretions have always been a secret to his teenage son Scott, masterfully played by Rory Culkin. These younger Culkins are continuing to develop into truly interesting and skillful young actors—Rory was outstanding in the little-seen The Night Listener, while his brother Kieran (flat-out excellent in Igby Goes Down and MIA from the screen since) pops up here as Scott’s older brother Jimmy, and their real-life chemistry and history lends more weight to the already well-written relationship.
Scott harbors a desperate crush on girl-next-door Adrianna Bragg; she’s played by Emma Roberts, whose nepotistic screen career and spotty filmography to date had me all ready to hate her. Joke’s on me; hers is a spunky, good-humored performance that effortlessly personifies the beautiful girl who is simultaneously attainable and inaccessible. Her family is in turmoil: her father Charlie (Timothy Hutton, in a livewire of a performance) is on edge, unemployed, and suffering from Lyme Disease. Her mother Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) has about run out of patience and is tired of being the sole breadwinner—she works in Mickey’s real estate office, where he is soon offering more than a shoulder to cry on.
Lymelife is a film that works on you subtly; its opening passages ably introduce the characters and the settings, while seeming to meander without much of a narrative thrust. But once the Martinis establish their pair of dysfunctional families and start to bounce them off of each other (and themselves), it unfolds with the precision and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Watch carefully how he lights a fire under the Scott-Adrianna relationship with one, perfect line at a church Christmas party (“Steal a bottle of the red and meet me in the confessional”), and then builds the sequence into a double-play of bad behavior.
The film is, primarily, an actor’s showcase, and there’s not a weak link in this first-rate ensemble—Hennessy is outstanding (in a role that could easily be played as a whiny shrew or a hapless victim), Baldwin continues his metamorphosis into one of our finest character actors, and Nixon plays some very difficult beats in the third act with grace and skill.
Derick Martini’s direction is tasteful and mature; he doesn’t show off, but his compositions and pacing aren’t dull either (I particularly liked the scene where shows a front-yard fistfight only as a reflection in a car window). Martin Scorsese is credited as executive producer, though Martini’s style isn’t obviously derivative of Scorsese’s (the influence is only apparent in his ingenious use of pop music, particularly on a slow push-in to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” that looks like a lost scene from GoodFellas). His mechanics are occasionally flawed (there are frequent continuity errors), and the film gets a little bogged down towards the hour mark with too much tell and not enough show. But as he slowly builds an undercurrent of dread on the way to the picture’s masterfully constructed closing sequence, there is no doubt that this is the work of a real filmmaker.
In its broad strokes, Lymelife sounds derivative and obvious, the kind of story we’ve seen countless times before in films of (to be kind) varying quality. But this seriocomic drama gets under your skin, if you’ll pardon the poor pun; this is a film of real complexity and intelligence, with unexpected richness and depth.
"Lymelife" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 22nd.