'A Short History of Decay': Film Review

Paladin
Fine performances and beautifully observed moments enliven this meandering character study.

A struggling writer visits his health-challenged elderly parents in Michael Maren's comedy-drama.

The main plot element of A Short History of Decay involves its central character’s visit to his elderly parents in Florida, and Michael Maren’s debut feature has much the same feel of the experience. Although fraught with petty frustrations and tensions, by the time it’s over a certain relaxation has kicked in thanks to the sunshine and free time. Although more than a little meandering and self-indulgent, the film is likeable nonetheless due to its incisive characterizations and canny capturing of true-life moments.

Bryan Greenberg (HBO’s How to Make It in America) stars as Nathan Fisher, a thirty-something Brooklyn writer who spends more time obsessing about how to avoid Alzheimer’s disease than working on his unfinished novel, play and screenplay. Although neurotic, he has some reason for concern, as his mother (Linda Lavin) is in the early stages of the disease and is slowly losing her faculties.

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Besides his career stasis, Nathan also finds his life in disarray when his longtime writer girlfriend Erika (Emmanuelle Chriqui) suddenly announces that she’s leaving him and has begun a relationship with her literary agent. Things get even worse when his brother Jack (Benjamin King) calls to inform him that their father (Harris Yulin) has suffered a stroke.

Still desperately pining for Erika, who he besieges with a constant series of plaintive phone calls, Nathan heads to Sarasota where he finds that his father has made a quick recovery. He decides to hang out for a while anyway, savoring the time with his elderly parents while trying to take stock of his life. Along the way, he meets not one but two beautiful women who are interested in him: Alex (Rebecca Dayan), a 25-year-old French divorcee who happily lives off her alimony; and Shelly (Kathleen Rose Perkins), her mother’s manicurist whose no-nonsense lack of pretension stands in marked contrast to his former girlfriend.

He’s later joined by Jack, a big shot lobbyist for the banking industry who suddenly reveals that his life is also in a shambles, with his wife about to leave him after her discovery of his affair with a young intern and his finances in tatters.

Director-screenwriter Maren displays a fine attention to scene-setting details, from Nathan’s foray into a Williamsburg cafe filled with writers toiling at their laptops (played by several actual well-known authors, including Kurt Andersen and Jennifer Egan) to Alex’s declaration that her favorite writers are David Foster Wallace and Michel Houellebecq to Nathan’s mother constantly turning up the heat in her sun-flooded home.

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The characters’ interpersonal dynamics are also sensitively depicted, including the lighthearted sibling rivalry between the two brothers and the parents’ deeply loving relationship that prospers despite their health travails.

A Short History of Decay is a little too laid-back for its own good, and Greenberg’s Nathan doesn’t quite engender the intended sympathy. But the supporting performances are first-rate -- Lavin and Yulin are deeply moving as the beleaguered parents while King perfectly nails the older brother’s middle-aged malaise -- and the film ultimately registers as a series of beautifully observed moments that, while they add up to less than the sum of their parts, provide some real pleasures along the way.

Opens May 16 (Paladin)

Production: Big Fan Films, Short History

Cast: Bryan Greenberg, Linda Lavin, Harris Yulin, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Benjamin King, Emmanuelle Chriqui

Director/screenwriter: Michael Maren

Producer: Alfred Sapse

Executive producer: Milos Forman

Director of photography: Nancy Schreiber

Editor: Timothy Snell

Production designer: Matthew Petersen

Costume designer: Hayley Swinson

Rated R, 94 minutes

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