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BERLIN — Lives of quiet desperation concealed behind the outwardly respectable facade of suburbia are an evergreen theme in American literature and cinema, spawning countless big-screen classics including The Swimmer, The Ice Storm and American Beauty. Indeed, it was the latter film that launched Wes Bentley to fame before drug addiction destroyed his marriage and damaged his upwardly mobile career. Newly clean and sober, Bentley returns to the theme of darkness on the edge of town in this slight but polished indie thriller.
Making its world premiere today in the Panorama Special sidebar at the Berlin film festival, Things People Do marks the feature-directing debut of Saar Klein, an editor who earned Oscar nominations for his work on Terrence Malick‘s The Thin Red Line and Cameron Crowe‘s Almost Famous. The theme of middle-class families facing financial hardship provides a topical marketing angle for Klein’s thoughtful drama, while solid performances from Bentley and Harry Potter co-star Jason Isaacs could also boost its modest box office potential. After Berlin, the film takes its U.S. bow at SXSW next month.
Bentley plays a rare leading-man role in Things People Do. Bill Scanlin is a straitlaced insurance agent with a Stepford-pretty wife Susan (Vinessa Shaw), two cute kids and a pleasant suburban home overlooking a picturesque desert vista outside Alberquerque, New Mexico. But Scanlin is living a lie after being fired from his job, too proud to tell his family as he slowly maxes out his credit cards and starts missing mortgage payments. Eventually, in desperation, he turns to crime. His first robbery occurs almost by accident, but when he develops a taste for it his armed hold-ups become increasingly bold and reckless.
Unlike previous subversive comedies about middle-class criminals, like Fun With Dick and Jane, Things People Do takes the high moral principles of its hero very seriously. In a clumsy and schematic twist, the script engineers a friendship between Scanlin and Frank (Isaacs), a boozy detective still reeling from a devastating divorce. When Frank begins to suspect his new friend of criminal activities, he spots a chance to redeem both of them with a fateful deal that feels far too neat.
Things People Do has much to recommend, including gorgeous New Mexico landscapes, sumptuous digital cinematography and — as we might expect from Klein — virtuoso editing. The child actors also impress with unusually natural performances, even if Bentley himself seems too stiff and starchy to convey the full spectrum of Scanlin’s emotional and psychological torment. Even in his deepest despair, we never truly feel his future is in jeopardy, possibly because Bentley’s default blank frown rarely suggests anything more serious than mild constipation.
The film’s take-home message, that telling white lies to protect your loved ones is no great sin, also feels jarringly trite. While movies like American Beauty challenged the sugar-coated screen cliches of all-American nuclear families, Things People Do appears to take it for granted that bourgeois suburban conformity is the sole formula for happiness. All the same, this is a technically accomplished and modestly engaging debut, marking Klein as an interesting talent to watch.
Production companies: Brace Cove, Faliro House
Producers: Sarah Green, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Hans Graffunder
Cast: Wes Bentley, Vinessa Shaw, Jason Isaacs, Haley Bennett
Director: Saar Klein
Screenwriters: Joe Conway, Saar Klein
Cinematographer: Matthias Koenigswieser
Editors: Hank Corwin, Saar Klein
Music: Marc Streitenfeld
Sales company: Celluloid Dreams
Not rated, 109 minutes
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