'Fits and Starts': Film Review | AFI Fest 2017

Courtesy of Benjamin Rutkowski
Hit-and-miss.
12/5/2017

Professional jealousy comes between married novelists in a comedy starring Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee.

The complicated matters of marital friction and literary striving share center stage with the easy target of artistic pretension in Laura Terruso’s Fits and Starts, a low-key comedy of errors whose leads' underplayed oomph bolsters the uneven scenario.

Terruso, taking her bow as a feature director, is best known as the co-writer of Hello, My Name Is Doris, which was based on a short film she made. As with that 2015 Sally Field vehicle, Fit and Starts substitutes quirkiness for convincing narrative drive, relying on a couple of nuanced central performances to make its cutely pained developments matter.

Playing married writers on very different rungs of the success ladder, Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee deliver the necessary X factor with effortless, angstful charm, even as the narrative devolves into a collection of clichés and predictable developments. The winningly droll Cenac, formerly of The Daily Show, will be the chief draw when the film follows its AFI Fest showcase with a Dec. 5 VOD release by The Orchard.

The movie’s mildly absurdist tone is set by the panic dream that opens the story. The dreamer is David Warwik (Cenac), a struggling writer whose wife, Jennifer (Lee), is known to the world as J. M. Lee, author of two best-selling novels. Once pegged for a promising writerly trajectory, David is given to mumbling apologetically about “making the transition from short stories.” Jennifer, a hot commodity who’s sought out for media interviews, does what she can to push him into the spotlight. She seizes on an invitation to an artists' salon held by her publisher (Buzz Bovshow) and his wife (Diane Ciesla), seeing an opportunity for David to read from his work in progress.

The gathering, in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, is the setting for most of the action. Through a series of blatant contrivances involving New England blue laws as well as digital devices and the lack thereof, David and Jennifer are separated on the way to the soiree and he winds up there alone. Terruso deftly captures his fish-out-of-water anxiety as he steps into the poseur-thick atmosphere of a living room where opera singing and modernist dance mix with literary drivel, conceptual artists (Jenn Harris, Matt Wilkas) in search of a concept, and a self-satisfied book critic (indie filmmaker Onur Tukel) who spouts ridiculous career advice.

That the patron-of-the-arts hosts would be so dismayed by David's awkwardness is as hard to buy as his trust in the goofy cops (Larry Murphy, Sam Seder) who pretend to be looking for Jennifer. But with his deadpan knack for weary disgust, Cenac makes David a strong viewer surrogate as he endures the salon’s assortment of types — characters who sometimes hit the mark but are mainly a matter of diminishing returns. Case in point is Alex Karpovsky’s brief turn as a successful editor. His politely barbed exchange with David heavily underscores the setup’s motif of toxic posturing, adding nothing to the proceedings except the actor’s familiar face.

The typically compelling Maria Dizzia, on the other hand, lends a jolt of imperious looniness and danger as a big-time lit agent with at least one personality disorder. But while the encounter between her and David has an arresting dark energy, it finally falls into the movie’s overall scheme of broad comic swipes rather than finely honed satire.

Touching on the intrinsically thorny and fascinating art-vs.-hype question, Terruso’s screenplay acknowledges that creativity and self-promotion are an easier combo for some than for others. “Networking is part of the work,” Jennifer insists to the schmoozing-averse David. It's a crucial observation that gets lost amid the pileup of caricatures, just as the film's well-directed moments give way to a less-than-satisfying whole.

Throughout this mixed bag of an escapade, Cenac’s hangdog exasperation is pitch-perfect, and although Lee is sidelined for much of the action, their scenes together have a sure chemistry. The two actors make their characters’ mutual affection and respect as persuasive as their unexpressed rivalry. In this slight but strained diversion, their wit and subtlety never waver.

Production companies: Armian Pictures, Free Architect Film
Distributor: The Orchard
Cast: Wyatt Cenac, Greta Lee, Maria Dizzia, Buzz Bovshow, Diane Ciesla, Larry Murphy, Sam Seder, Alex Karpovsky, Nick Feitel, John Rothman, Onur Tukel, Jenn Harris, Matt Wilkas, Matt Dellapina, Joseph Keckler, Nicholas Colia, Louis Cancelmi, Saori Tsukada
Director-screenwriter: Laura Terruso
Producers: Margherita Arco, Neda Armian, Laura Terruso
Executive producer: Stacey Parks
Director of photography: Benjamin Rutkowski
Production designer: Katrina Whalen
Costume designer: Aubrey Laufer
Editor: Robert Grigsby Wilson
Composer: Jay Israelson
Casting director: Allison Twardziak

Venue: AFI Fest (American Independents)

82 minutes

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