Film Review: Against the Current

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PARK CITY -- Outfitting his river movie "Against the Current" with comedy, sadness and wit, writer-director Peter Callahan plunges into the Hudson for a downstream swim through emotional currents that run stronger and more treacherously than the river's. Callahan has written a smart movie, and his casting might be even smarter. This essentially is a three-hander in which Joseph Fiennes, Justin Kirk and Elizabeth Reaser shine in meaty roles with crisp dialogue.

Despite its tragic theme, "Current" is highly entertaining and could pull modest to better boxoffice coin in specialty venues. Positive reviews and more festival play can only help.

At first, the swim seems a lark. Fiennes' Paul Thompson stops for a drink at a New York bar tended by Jeff (Kirk), his best friend since forever. He casually mentions a project they spoke about as kids but Jeff pretty much has forgotten.

Paul wants to swim the Hudson River, all 150 miles from Troy, N.Y., to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Jeff will follow him in a boat. Liz (Reaser), a schoolteacher who once worked, unsuccessfully, at the bar, gets in on the conversation. She decides to join Jeff in the chase boat.

The two buddies talk in a jokey manner, but Paul is little more than Jeff's straight man. This banter and the reaction to it by a woman unattached to either party carry the movie through the prep, boat purchase and initial swims.

A couple things bubble to the surface: Jeff is in a deteriorating marriage, and Paul harbors a secret pain that might be compelling this odd journey.

Paul has a schedule to keep, no matter the weather: He means to reach the Verrazano by Aug. 28. The date is an anniversary Jeff also has forgotten. Paul suffered a tragic loss on that date five years before. Once he finishes the river swim, he will have nothing else for which to live.

Jeff is angry and baffled at this realization, but Liz is beside herself. The more she tries to convince Paul he has much to live for, the more she falls for him.

Then comes the film's supreme comic interlude as the trio stops for the night at Liz's mother's exquisite Hudson Valley domicile. Mary Tyler Moore as Liz's society-matron mother and Michelle Trachtenberg as her 20-year-old hottie sister have everyone's heads spinning. Gossip, opinions, snide and cutting remarks flow over the dinner table. It must be an aphrodisiac, though, given what happens next.

The humor switches from lighthearted to the gallows as Liz and Jeff continue to support Paul's quest, despite grave misgivings about his goal.

What impresses about Callahan's second feature is how smoothly he can juggle conflicting emotions within a single scene. Maybe it's because he has been there.

According to the filmmaker, he lost the mother of his child a day after she gave birth. Having a baby kept Callahan going, but he wonders what someone without such a dependent would do. When writers wonder about things, they write something like "Current."

Filming along the magnificent Hudson, Callahan takes in remarkable sights and scenes and finds drama and comedy at every bend. The movie is technically flawless, which is difficult when filming on water. And in case you, too, were wondering: The Hudson has been cleaned enough that Fiennes did not risk exposure to too many toxins by doing his own swimming.

Production: Fortissimo Films, Ambush Entertainment, Ghost Robot
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Justin Kirk, Elizabeth Reaser, Mary Tyler Moore, Michelle Trachtenberg, Pell James
Director-screenwriter: Peter Callahan
Producers: Joshua Zeman, Mary Jane Skalski
Executive producers: Jonathan Gray, Miranda Bailey, Matthew Leutwyler
Director of photography: Sean Kirby
Production designer: Tommaso Ortino
Music: Anton Sanko
Costume designer: Annie Yun
Editor: Michael Taylor
Sales agent: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 98 minutes