Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Theaters: "The Good Guy"

The Good Guy tries to do the damndest thing, and almost pulls it off: it starts off clumsily, and the first act has all kinds of problems, but it takes a turn that made me think that most of the things I didn’t like about its opening section were done on purpose. That’s a risky gamble; I was so thoroughly unimpressed by the junk I was watching in that first half hour that I contemplated sneaking out and trying to catch something else.

Follow me here: our hero Tommy is an investment banker (good timing, huh?) who narrates the story of his sad betrayal and heartbreak in a cliché-ridden voice-over. He’s played by an actor named Scott Porter, who comes off as the kind of vapid, dull, vaguely handsome void who frequently plays leading man in a movie like this for no good reason. His line readings are wooden, and Alexis Bledel, as his girlfriend Beth, isn’t nearly as natural with her dialogue as you’d think she’d be after seven years of Gilmore Girls. When we meet them, they’re already a few weeks into a blandly vanilla relationship; their scenes are sickeningly, cloyingly sweet.

Tommy has taken a bit of a shine to the new guy at “Morgan Brothers,” a nice-guy former military man named Daniel (Bryan Greenberg). Daniel is smart but singularly unskilled at relating with either clients or the opposite sex; Tommy makes it his mission to solve both problems, advising him on how to dress for success and play the dating game. But along the way, Daniel develops a crush on Beth, and she may be inclined to reciprocate.

So there’s the situation, and while all of this is being set up, the strangest thing happens. Once The Good Guy settles in, it starts to engage us—the story is compelling, the characters get some dimension, and we get interested in what’s going to happen. Much of that is thanks to Greenberg’s skillful work; he gets a firm grip on Daniel’s social awkwardness and plays it without overplaying it. He also works well with Bledel, who seems much more at ease in their scenes. And writer/director Julio DePietro has a valuable gift: this is the rare male-penned screenplay where the girl-talk scenes are stronger than the guy-talk ones. Some of our best writers don’t write women well (how ya doin’, Mamet?), so this is not something to be undervalued. These scenes are also greatly enhanced by the strong casting of Beth’s friends—particularly the wonderful Anna Chlumsky, whose similarly charming performance in In The Loop has made her one to watch this year.

But wait a minute, what about all those bad scenes in the first act? Well, DePietro’s story takes a sharp left turn; I won’t reveal it, except to note that it’s clumsily foreshadowed in an offhand comment Beth makes about a book. But it is a good twist—so good, in fact, that it calls into question many of my complaints. Suddenly, things that didn’t work make sense. Was it all part of a brilliant storytelling strategy?

Maybe, maybe not. First of all, a movie has to play both as a whole and moment-to-moment; some members of the audience might not figure out what he’s up to because they won’t stick around past those inelegant opening scenes. And some of the movie’s troubles can’t be explained away; loaded or not, much of the dialogue is clunky and sign-posty, and there’s no reason for Andrew McCarthy (given the too-obvious moniker of “Cash”) to be as bad as he is as Tommy’s boss. This is stunt-casting gone awry; McCarthy isn’t ready for a Mickey Rourke-style indie comeback, because unlike Rourke, McCarthy was a bad actor even when he was getting good roles.

Still, The Good Guy is a good-looking movie (it makes fine use of its NYC locations), and I can’t deny that I admired much of it. There are real laughs and winning performances, and scenes where there are all kinds of interesting things happening. But boy does it take some patience to get to the good stuff.

"The Good Guy" opens Friday, February 19 in limited release.

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