It’s hard to know how Kat Coiro’s While We Were Here would play under optimal conditions (still not well, I’m guessing), but the programmers of the Tribeca Film Festival did the picture no favors by slotting it anywhere near the same vicinity as Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz, a film that, like this one, deals with a marriage on the verge of rupture due to a wife’s attraction to a younger, more exciting man. I saw Waltz first; While We Were Here never stood a chance. Everything that was gutsy and nuanced in Waltz is flat and obvious here, and all of the complexities that made that picture so authentic are altogether absent. Godard once said that the best way to criticize a film was to make another one, and while I realize that it’s logistically impossible for Take this Waltz to have been a rebuke to While We Were Here, there are times where it sure as hell plays like one.
Married couple Jane (Kate Bosworth) and Leonard (Iddo Goldberg) are spending two weeks in Naples. She’s a freelance writer; he’s an esteemed violist. “I think it’s gonna be good, us being here,” she tells him as they arrive, and they hold hands stiffly. There’s an unspoken discomfort between them, later revealed: they wed because she was pregnant, but she subsequently miscarried. They’re traveling for his work (he’s playing with a local orchestra), but they’re also looking to revive the dormant union.
One day, while he’s rehearsing, she takes an impromptu ride over to Ischia, where she has a chance encounter with a young, chatty America named Caleb (Jamie Blackley). The 19-year-old ends up tagging along with her for the day; there’s a little bit of a spark, a little bit of a connection, but it’s more than that. Jane clearly recognizes in him a little piece of the carefree youth that is no longer inside her. When she returns to Leonard, the contrast between the free-spirited kid and her fuddy-duddy hubby becomes clearer.
Too clear, frankly. The trouble with the picture (the primary trouble, anyway) is that, because Leonard is such a sour and unappealing twit, the actual triangle isn’t terribly interesting. This is what Polley got so right, and that Cairo gets so wrong: the husband in Waltz is a genuinely warm and tender guy, and what the man on the side offers is less the remedy for a loveless marriage than, simply, the draw of something new. While We Were Here’s Caleb offers the same, and that’s a dynamic worth looking into. But Cairo stacks the deck by also making Leonard such an unfeeling, uncaring drip, and by making his interactions with Jane such one-the-nose dramatizations of overworked married dissatisfaction. Thus, if Jane has to choose, there’s no tension, or real question of audience sympathy; the pedestrian writing of the husband character and the overall situation makes it comically easy for her.
To be fair, when Bosworth finally gets something substantial to play (this comes very late in the film), she’s game, and Blackley has a nice, sideways manner of delivering his lines that gives the picture a much-needed shot of energy whenever he appears. Also, the black-and-white photography is luminous, and the Italian locations are (expectedly) to die for. It’s all quite lovely to look at, but once you get past the arty cinematography and deliberate pace, While We Were Here is little more than Eat Pray Love for the festival circuit.