'Breakable You': Film Review | Palm Springs 2017

Breakable You Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Palm Springs International Film Festival
Fine cast fails to salvage an unsavory moral drama.

Holly Hunter and Tony Shalhoub play bitter ex-spouses in this dark family drama from the author and director of 'Starting Out in the Evening.'

One of the most high-profile films receiving its world premiere in Palm Springs is an intriguing morality play, Breakable You, that boasts a top-notch cast and acclaimed filmmakers. Yet this film about family dysfunction and ethical crises never reaches a fully satisfying conclusion. That heralds a tough road in the marketplace, despite the presence of a few award-winning actors.

Oscar winner Holly Hunter plays Eleanor Weller, a therapist who is not coping well with changes in her personal life, including a recent divorce and the growing instability of her daughter. Her ex-husband Adam (Tony Shalhoub) is a once promising playwright whose career has been on a steady decline for many years. When Adam receives a manuscript written by a dead friend, he seizes an opportunity to transform his life.

The premise is not much different from that of a recent Woody Allen movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, in which Josh Brolin played a plagiarizing writer. Although that movie was far from Allen’s strongest, the touches of humor made it somewhat more palatable than the more scathing drama presented here. Breakable comes from a novel by Brian Morton, with a script by director Andrew Wagner and Fred Parnes. According to Wagner, the novel was even darker than the film, which is still highly acerbic.

One of the most troublesome characters is the couple’s daughter, Maud (Cristin Milioti), a philosophy student who begins a torrid affair with a designer and sometime actor, Samir (Omar Metwally). Maud behaves in bewilderingly self-destructive ways throughout the picture, and we never develop much sympathy for her. The film seems to prove the adage that therapists who try to mend others’ lives often have a hard time putting their own house in order. In any case, Maud has clearly ingested some of the toxic flavor of her parents’ relationship.

The question is whether an audience will want to spend time with a group of narcissists and depressives. Hunter presents the most appealing, if flawed, character, and her budding romance with her husband’s brother, charmingly played by Alfred Molina, could be the movie’s most winning element. Shalhoub offers a bold, skillful portrayal of a thoroughly despicable character; it’s hard to find one redeeming feature in the vain, egomaniacal Adam. But at least he’s more vibrant than the sad-sack characters played by Milioti and Metwally, who really can’t do much to redeem their underwritten roles.

Wagner directed an earlier movie from a novel by Morton, Starting Out in the Evening, that featured an expert performance by Frank Langella as another less-than-noble hero. But that film was more engaging as a whole. This new effort is often provocative, even when the characters are off-putting, but the attempt at a slightly upbeat ending rings false. You can’t really bring off a feel-good finale with such a ghoulish cast of characters.

Cast: Holly Hunter, Tony Shalhoub, Alfred Molina, Cristin Milioti, Omar Metwally

Director: Andrew Wagner

Screenwriters: Andrew Wagner, Fred Parnes

Based on the novel by: Brian Morton

Producers: Kevin Comer, Andrew Wagner, Fred Parnes

Executive producer: Douglas Harmon

Director of photography: Harlan Bosmajian

Production designer: Dara Wishingrad

Costume designer: Kama K. Royz

Editor: Gena Bleier

Music: Adam Gorgoni

No rating, 120 minutes