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Maybe it’s something in the water in Long Island’s Queens and Nassau counties, but such documentaries as “51 Birch Street,” “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Crazy Love” have introduced us to seemingly familiar New York-area families, only to reveal corners that were dark (in the case of “Birch”), disturbing and pathological (“Friedmans”) and flat-out crazed and nutty (“Crazy Love”).
In “Phyllis and Harold,” a look at her parents Phyllis and Harold Kleine, now deceased, filmmaker Cindy Kleine hits a mushy, murky, mediocre middle ground. Like many of their peers, the Kleines came from Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East Side and made it to the suburbs, where they achieved a life of material comfort that included a beautifully landscaped house, nanny, and much international travel. Credit Harold’s success as a dentist and the new money his career generated.
Via interviews with her mother and father, who tend not to be in the same shot, we learn that their love letters were effusive but that the 59-year marriage that ensued was a grave disappointment, especially to Phyllis. She groans, grimaces and complains as she reveals the great love of her life with whom she cheated during the very early and very late years of her marriage.
Harold, on the other hand, is the poster child for denial. Seemingly numbed and clueless, he views the marriage positively.
If Phyllis did not enjoy the long marital ride, the problem for viewers might be that even an hour-plus with these two could be too much. In fact, none of the family members is great company, as eloquence, self-knowledge and empathy are in short supply. Boxoffice prospects are pretty limited.
The only spark here is Phyllis’ adulterous affair, but with no clues to the identity, personality or character of the mysterious — and married — lover, he never comes to life in any way. Yes, Phyllis convincingly pines for him, and daughters Cindy and Ricky share their collusion in keeping the affair a secret from their father. Apparently, their cooperation, which included helping Phyllis secretly doll up for trysts at Ricky’s apartment, was critical since Harold micromanaged all of the family finances, including the monitoring of credit cards and phone calls.
After Harold dies, Phyllis moves easily into the next phase of her life in nice assisted-living quarters in downtown Manhattan. She fails in her effort to reconnect with her lover and expresses not an iota of remorse at her husband’s passing. Love here, wedded to her affair and not to her marriage, has nothing to do with family. “He showed me the world” is her only clue to why she went the 59-year distance with Harold.
Made over many years, “Phyllis and Harold” offers the requisite home movies and photographs evoking lives lived decades ago. But the archival material provides no more than lighter family moments, including Phyllis and Harold’s far-flung travels. Many presumed friends and other family members seen go unidentified.
Fortunately, Lisa Crafts’ colorful animation intermittently brings welcome charm and life to this otherwise dreary tale.
So what is it about? The lessons that emerge are that families aren’t what they seem, aging alters us, and true and lasting love is rare. Who knew?
Opens: Friday, Feb. 19 (Rainbow Releasing)
Production: Silver Penny Pictures
Director-writer-producer: Cindy Kleine
Executive producer: Andre Gregory
Co-producer/editor: Jonathan Oppenheim
Directors of photography: Cindy Kleine, Claire Cario
Music: Bruce Odland
Animation: Lisa Crafts
No rating, 84 minutes
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