Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In Theaters: "Mid-August Lunch"

The laid-back vibe of Mid-August Lunch is established early on, in the opening credits sequence, a long take of two middle-aged men sitting in the sun, drinking and chatting and kibitzing as people bustle past them. Gianni Di Gregorio writes, directs, and stars in the picture, and it’s just about the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a man who co-wrote the grim crime drama Gomorrah; it’s a fluffy charmer, light as air. It’s a sweet little comedy, light on plot (and on time—it runs a scant 75 minutes), but full of merriment.

Di Gregorio plays, coincidentally enough, Gianni, a good-natured middle-aged fellow who shares a Rome flat with his elderly mother. He’s an easygoing fellow, with no job or apparent source of income, so with the holiday of Ferragosto (on August 15) around the corner, opportunities begin to present themselves: his landlord and doctor offer him to forgive his debts if he will look after their aging mothers, while they flee the city for the holiday.

The series of events that leads Gianni to have an apartment full of cranky old ladies unfolds with absolute logic, particularly as we observe his desperate friends trying gamely to sell him on the notion that their mothers won’t get in the way (“She had hardening of the arteries?” Gianni asks, to which his landlord replies, “Sooner or later, we all do!”). His mother is as understanding as she can be, but is also set in her ways; guests are fine, but she wants her TV to herself for her evening programs. “We do this gladly,” she tells her son, “but gladly up to a point.”

As a writer, Di Gregorio shows admirable subtlety and restraint—if this were an American comedy, he’d have a crew of wisecracking Golden Girls clones on his hands. They’re given distinct comic personalities, yes, but none are overplayed (even the awkward scene with Marina, the landlord’s feisty mother, isn’t over the top). His directorial style is similarly unimposing, utilizing a simple, classical execution with lots of long takes, most of them in medium wide shots, letting the scenes play out and find their own natural rhythms.

There’s not a hell of a lot to Mid-August Lunch; it’s slight and perhaps a bit middling, and it favors chuckles and smiles over big laughs. But it’s got sun-kissed photography and a cheery score, and a low-key ending that’s admirable for its reserve. There are worse ways to while away an hour and fifteen minutes; the picture’s a piffle, but its heart is in the right place.

"Mid-August Lunch" opens today in New York City.

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