'Last Weekend': Provincetown Review

Last Weekend Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Provincetown

Last Weekend Film Still - H 2014

The real estate lust outweighs the emotional rewards, but this minor-key ensemble drama is sleek and absorbing.

Patricia Clarkson plays a wealthy woman trying to create a magical interlude for her family as she struggles to let go of the past in this autumnal tale of a summer house.

Imagine that Cate Blanchett's Blue Jasmine character had been evicted from her bubble of complacent privilege not by calamity and public humiliation but by the veil of melancholy that descends with fraying family bonds and the encroaching awareness that the sun is setting on life's most joyous moments. That more or less describes the character played with dry humor and complexity by Patricia Clarkson in Last Weekend. Restrained and elegant to a fault, this first feature from co-directors Tom Dolby and Tom Williams is too muted in its catharsis and too overcrowded with superfluous characters to be fully satisfying, but the delicate central performance keeps it watchable.

Dolby's screenplay wears its influences quite transparently, from Woody Allen through Chekhov. And with its fetishistic attention to sumptuous living — gastronomical pleasures, floral table arrangements, a dream house out of Architectural Digest, bursting with collectibles — Last Weekend could almost be the indie equivalent of Nancy Meyers lifestyle porn.

Clarkson plays Celia Green, the well-heeled wife of San Francisco fitness magnate Malcolm (Chris Mulkey). Looking to recapture her family's carefree past, she painstakingly curates an idyllic Labor Day weekend for her adult sons, Theo (Zachary Booth) and Roger (Joseph Cross), to remember the gorgeous Lake Tahoe house where they grew up spending their summers. Rather than actually engage with their lives or give serious attention to their partners, however, Celia is more worried about finding the perfect sunflowers for the dinner table or whether she’s bought enough salmon. It’s a credit to Clarkson's nuanced exploration of character that she can make this vaguely daffy, head-in-the-clouds aesthete sympathetic.

The conflict, soft as it is, stems from Celia's pained decision to sell the house, a step she isn't quite ready to share with her offspring. If Dolby's screenplay had provided a pressing reason for this, like financial necessity, it might have raised the stakes. There's some vague muttering to suggest that old friends have moved away, and the self-made Greens are not crazy about the newer nouveau riche snapping up lakeside properties. That element is typified by the air-kissing socialite next door, played by Judith Light in a sly caricature. But mainly it's that the house represents a part of the past Celia knows is over.

Neither Theo nor Roger shows much nostalgia for that past, unlike their mother, whose self-absorption irks them in different ways. Theo has brought along Luke (Devon Graye), his pretty boyfriend of three weeks, whose humble roots make him nervous around so much wealth. Roger is dealing with his own anxieties, having lost his job in finance through a colossal blunder. And his girlfriend Vanessa (Alexia Rasmussen), while hurt by Celia's indifference toward her, is busy hawking her company's flavored water in the hopes of getting it carried in Malcolm's gyms.

Almost nobody here is without self-interest. Among the secondary characters are aspiring screenwriter Theo's film-industry friend Nora (Rutina Wesley), whom he hopes will help him get a project produced; her complaining partner Sean (Fran Kranz); and recovering alcoholic TV star Blake (Jayma Mays), another old pal of Theo's. There's also a lesbian couple (Mary Kay Place and Sheila Kelley) who literally surface while out snorkeling in the lake.

These people all appear to be invited along for ornamentation in the populous country-house literary tradition, rather than serving any real purpose in the plot. That goes also for Malcolm, who barely exists as a character. Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet pulled off this kind of large-canvas group portrait much more effectively in Rachel Getting Married.

A stronger case can be made for including the live-in help (Julio Oscar Mechoso and Julie Carmen), whom Celia somewhat patronizingly insists are practically family, while the film makes a wry point of acknowledging the class divide. A near-tragedy involving one of them fuels her introspective feelings of solitude, and signals the shift to a more somber mood.

Mostly, Last Weekend saunters along emulating the cool jazzy strains of Stephen Barton's score, and cinematographer Paul Huidobro maximizes the visual appeal of the beautiful locations and the Greens' magnificent estate, bathed in soft natural light. Well-acted and never less than absorbing, the film has its share both of understated humor and affecting moments. But what it's missing is bite. The impression is that Dolby likes his characters too much to step back and regard them with a critically detached eye.

Given that he's the scion of the sound technology dynasty and the house is the setting of his own family summers (not to mention the location where Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor smoldered in A Place in the Sun), that lack of objectivity is perhaps no surprise. Only someone who grew up rolling in dough could fail to realize an audience needs a concrete reason for the central character to surrender her dream house.

There's sensitivity in the filmmakers' observation of the rich boy/poor boy hiccups that suspend a question mark over any potential future relationship between Theo and Luke. Their thread is the most fully developed, with solid work from Booth (Keep the Lights On) and Graye — even if having Luke sing (or lip-synch) a "Nessun Dorma" in the shower that reduces vulnerable Celia to tears is a bit ripe.

But the emotional core is Celia, and with her usual economy and intelligence, Clarkson provides poignant glimpses of this woman's needling inner life. With a lesser actress it would be easy to dismiss this as a self-indulgent examination of rich people's problems, but Clarkson dignifies the material. Her character's reflections on being a mother — on the gradual erosion of that role's centrality as children grow more distant, making their own mistakes and taking their lives in their own hands — will strike chords with a lot of women.

Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Chris Mulkey, Zachary Booth, Joseph Cross, Devon Graye, Alexia Rasmussen, Rutina Wesley, Fran Kranz, Jayma Mays, Julie Carmen, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Sheila Kelley, Mary Kay Place, Judith Light

Production companies: Gran Via Productions, in association with Greyshack Films, Water’s End Productions

Directors: Tom Dolby, Tom Williams

Screenwriter: Tom Dolby

Producer: Mike S. Ryan

Executive producer: Mark Johnson

Director of photography: Paul Huidobro

Production designer: Amy Williams

Costume designer: Alexis Scott

Editors: Michael R. Miller, David Gray

Music: Stephen Barton

No rating, 94 minutes.