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LONDON — If only Federico Fellini had lived long enough to direct Hot Tub Time Machine, he might have made something like this self-indulgent but agreeably ambitious anti-romcom. The hero Jake Klein (Elias Koteas) is a 50-year-old Hollywood auteur in the middle of shooting an experimental movie about his own life, which he appears to be directing from a Jacuzzi in his back garden. But romantic farce takes a surreal turn into magic realism when multiple different Jakes crash the party – at age 17, 30 and 40 – plunging the present-day version back in time to agonize over decades of missed opportunities and failed love affairs.
To baffle viewers further, a handsome young actor (Mike Vogel) is also playing Jake’s screen alter ego. Then his dead father and grandfather turn up. Confused? You will be. No wonder writer-director and Sundance veteran Howard Goldberg failed to raise even his modest $50,000 target on Kickstarter last year to help make this, his third feature. He went ahead and shot it anyway. Jake Squared has just premiered to a warm reception at Raindance, the London festival of low-budget indie cinema currently celebrating its 21st anniversary. A North American debut is lined up at the Big Apple film festival in New York on November 6. Further festivals should follow, with niche theatrical potential dependent on savvy marketing to fans of neurotic Jewish-American humor.
Jake Squared stands on the shoulders of some heavyweight cinematic ancestors, most obviously Fellini’s sumptuous quasi-memoir 8½. Goldberg flouts the connection by including Fellini’s maxim that “all art is autobiographical”, one of dozens of quotes that dance playfully across the screen throughout the movie. Woody Allen’s bittersweet love-life confessional Annie Hall is another, with Goldberg’s nebbish protagonist even talking directly to camera and recycling the same Groucho Marx lines. The script’s meta-textual layers and split-personality hero also owe a clear debt to Charlie Kaufman’s self-referential, time-scrambling, brain-twisting black comedies.
Of course, Goldberg’s film lacks the emotional and intellectual depths of these movie classics. For a start, his script is rambling, overlong and confusingly tangled in places. Jake also strains audience sympathy, with his clichéd midlife anxieties about finding love and getting laid. Woody would have made him more complicated, Larry David more self-aware, Bill Murray more soulfully screwed up. Koteas is a fine actor, exuding the wiry charisma of a mid-career Robert De Niro, but Jake still comes across as a self-absorbed bore for much of the movie. It is never quite clear if Goldberg recognizes this problem, since the character is so nakedly autobiographical.
Goldberg also gives his alter ego a free pass for his chauvinistic attitudes to women, surrounding him with bikini-clad fantasy babes who are inexplicably attracted to his near-constant mood of whiney self-pity. An unusually restrained Jennifer Jason Leigh is underused as Jake’s latest not-quite-girlfriend, as is Virginia Madsen as his endlessly patient best buddy, while elegant British veteran Jane Seymour gets just a few lines as the former childhood crush he let slip away. Not even these feted screen queens are afforded roles that would pass cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s celebrated Bechdel Test, in which two female characters share a brief conversation about something other than a man.
But these are irritants, not fatal flaws. If you can forgive its navel-gazing narcissism, Jake Squared is a warm-hearted comic fable about love, loss and midlife regret. It looks glossy and polished, with a fluid editing style that shifts confidently into more experimental jump cuts during Jake’s monologues to camera. The Kaufman-esque plot loops, which eventually throw together four different real Jakes with two fake Jakes, throw up some smart dramatic collisions and witty sparks. The scenes in which Koteas acts opposite multiple versions of himself are seamlessly assembled.
With a tighter edit, some sharper lines and a more likeable protagonist, Jake Squared might have been a masterpiece. As it stands, Goldberg has made a commendably adventurous and mostly enjoyable meta-comedy that recalls both the best and worst of 1970s Hollywood.
Production company: Jake Squared, LLC
Producers: Howard Goldberg, Elias Koteas, John K. Wilson
Starring: Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jane Seymour, Mike Vogel
Director: Howard Goldberg
Writer: Howard Goldberg
Cinematographer: Adam Bricker
Editor: Michael Swingler
Music: Daniel Adam Day
Sales: Eastgate Pictures, LLC
Unrated, 100 minutes
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