Twelve Thirty -- Film Review

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MONTREAL -- The dysfunctional American family has been a gold mine for stateside indie directors, as have themes of dysfunctional American sexuality and dysfunctional American suburbs. Director Jeff Lipsky ("Once More With Feeling," "Flannel Pajamas") goes, therefore, where many have gone before in "Twelve Thirty," a tangled tale of seduction about a young man and his involvement with three women of the same Iowa City family.

Imagine the most off-putting elements of Eric Rohmer, Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute rolled into one film, with the satirical edge dulled and the running time stretched to an unreasonable two-plus hours, and you might get an idea of what this dense, self-indulgent, highly unpleasant ensemble piece is like. The result is not exactly boring; it's too bizarre and flamboyant to lose your attention completely, but it is talky, unfocused, and maddeningly tone deaf. It's hard to fathom "Twelve Thirty" getting much love either on the festival circuit or at the local art house theater.

The film opens with a scene of flirtation between Mel (Portia Reiners), a coquettish young woman, and the boyishly handsome Jeff (Jonathan Groff, Broadway's "Spring Awakening," Fox's "Glee"), whose neurotic chattiness and insistence that he is sexually inexperienced seem at odds with the cocky twinkle in his eyes.

The two exchange the kind of deliberate banter and dreamy monologues better suited to theater. However, awful dialogue is the movie's most damning flaw. The characters in "Twelve Thirty" ramble on and on, detouring into tedious anecdotes peppered with obscure references, insults and strained attempts at irony. Lipsky's screenplay displays no sense of how people actually talk, nor does it have anything close to the comic sting or style of the conversations in Solondz's "Happiness" or its underrated follow-up, "Life During Wartime."

After what feels like an eternity, the film shifts its focus to Maura (a sour Mamie Gummer), Mel's virginal older sister. Maura appears to spend her days moping around with an exceedingly obnoxious friend (Halley Feiffer) and ends up schmoozing with none other than Jeff, her younger sister's boytoy from the film's opening sequence, at a neighborhood party.

The film's third section centers on an encounter between Maura's and Mel's boozy businesswoman mother Vivien (Karen Young) and -- who else? -- Jeff, who clearly has developed an unhealthy fixation on the women of this family.

Floating around the periphery of "Twelve Thirty" is Martin (Reed Birney), Vivien's ex-husband and Mel's and Maura's father, who now lives with his boyfriend but comes over every now and then to sleep with his former wife. Martin becomes a key player in a final-act twist that is shockingly mean-spirited.

The actors attack their roles with relish, but the characters in "Twelve Thirty" are an irredeemably annoying bunch: coy, sadistic and not very interesting. The only actor who manages to rise above the mess is the charismatic Groff, who makes Jeff oily and earnest, monstrous and fragile.

A good movie could have been streamlined from this story, as there are a few scattered moments -- such as a conversation between Maura and her best friend after Maura loses her virginity and a surprisingly lovely final scene. Lipsky seems to be getting at the destructive potential of desire and the inability of sex to fulfill romantic longings. But the filmmaker loses himself in his overwritten, vacuously philosophical approach.

To his credit, Lipsky displays a keen sense of Midwestern spaces, with big, sterile houses bordering vast cornfields, progressive college town main streets and their upscale restaurants and old churches along farm roads.

Ultimately, you're left with the odd impression of having seen not a bad film but a thoroughly wrongheaded and misguided one. Lipsky commits himself fully to these insufferable characters and examines their problems thoroughly -- if not coherently -- even if he can't make us care about them. "Twelve Thirty" is an enthusiastically crafted failure, an unfortunate instance of a director unable to share his obsessions.

Venue: Montreal World Film Festival
Production: Twelve-Thirty Prods.
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Portia Reiners, Karen Young, Halley Feiffer, Reed Birney, Rebecca Schull, Barbara Barrie
Director-screenwriter: Jeff Lipsky
Producer: Dan Satorius
Director of photography: Ruben O'Malley
Production designer: Stacia Allen
Music: Paul Hsu
Costume designer: Amy Bradshaw
Editor: Sara Corrigan
No rating, 121 minutes
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