Murderball director Dana Adam Shapiro makes the leap effortlessly in his new film Monogamy. In fact, the film seems richer for his non-fiction experience; he adopts an observant, off-the-cuff shooting style that is reflected in the low-key performances and the smart screenplay, which refuses to turn itself over to the histrionics and maudlin melodrama that a lesser director would have amped up. In its own quiet way, it’s a marvelous picture.
Chris Messina (the skilled character actor last seen in Greenberg) plays Theo, a New York photographer who has grown absolutely bored of the wedding jobs he’s taking to pay the bills. He tries his hand at a side business, cutsily called “gumshoot”, in which he is hired by clients to take photos of them surreptitiously at a predetermined time and place; they get a less-guarded selection, he gets to try some real artistry. But early on in the venture, he’s hired by a woman he knows only as “subgirl”; their first “session” takes on an unexpectedly erotic air, and he finds himself fascinated, and perhaps a little obsessed, by the mystery woman. But his timing couldn’t be worse—he’s a few months from marrying Nat (Rashida Jones), who isn’t quite sure what to make of his new gig, and when she ends up out of the house unexpectedly, he’s suddenly free to go deeper than he probably should.
Perhaps the film’s strongest element is in its portrayal of Theo and Nat’s relationship. The two actors (both terrific) share an easy, relaxed chemistry and a sense of shared history; their dialogue has the natural rhythms of actual overheard conversation, full of inside jokes and shared history. Later in the film, when they have a fight, it feels like the real thing—it’s charged with the kind of little jabs and cuts that are more recognizable (and usually more hurtful) than the overwrought screaming that most movie “fight scenes” have. It’s not melodrama; the climactic scenes here have the emotional brutality of a Cassavetes picture.
The handheld photography may put some off, but it’s subtle and done with sly finesse, and the New York street scenes have a hip, snappy energy to them. Shapiro is going for a raw, unrehearsed naturalism, but he’s not adverse to the pop of a throwaway joke or a fetishized detail. Most commendable, though, is his matter-of-fact approach to sexuality; it’s that rarest of beasts, an actual grown-up movie about sexual desire, repression, and obsession. Monogamy gets at the very nature of eroticism in way that mainstream cinema seldom does—the way a sexual experience lodges in your brain and replays in your head, and how it can drive you just a little bit crazy.
But for all of the film’s sexuality (though it should be noted that it steers clear of skin and other elements of crass exploitation), its sexiest moment is one where the eroticism is implicit. After Theo’s first shoot with “subgirl”, Nat walks in and sees him looking at the photos. She asks what they are, and he tells her, truthfully. Her reaction to the pictures—fear, jealousy, arousal—is beautifully modulated and complex; Nat has so much going on in that scene, it makes your head spin, and Jones puts it all across (she shows depths here only hinted at in her comic work). Messina has an equivalent scene later, when Theo (no doubt to deflect some of his own shame) gives her the third degree about an old flirt note he’s discovered; in that scene, his tremendous performance (and Shapiro’s intelligent script) beautifully captures how hurt and jealousy and insecurity all get bound up in the same tight little knot.
The picture loses its nerve a bit in the third act. Though it studiously avoids easy genre trappings that Chloe, another recent sexy movie with a brain, ultimately succumbed to, it stops short of exploring some intriguing areas that they seem to be setting up with that scene where she sees the pictures, or by her flirtation with a sweet doctor. (Also, Shapiro’s shock ending isn’t nearly as surprising as he thinks it is.) But if Monogamy’s ultimate failure to fully commit to the adult subject matter is a touch disappointing, the unexpected (but earned) pathos of the closing scene wrap the film up more than satisfactorily.
"Mongogamy" opens in New York City on Friday, March 11, and in Los Angeles and other select cities on Friday, March 18.