'The Second Sun': Film Review

Well-meaning but hopelessly contrived.
8/16/2019

John Buffalo Mailer and Eden Epstein play two strangers who reveal painful secrets about their past during one long night in Jennifer Gelfer's indie drama.

The Second Sun may indeed be "inspired by a true incident," as an opening onscreen graphic informs us, but nothing in the film actually rings true. Jennifer Gelfer's debut feature, all too obviously based on a stage play, concerns the fateful meeting of true strangers late one night in a New York City bar. The story takes place in 1953, and the relentlessly artificial-feeling film feels like it could have been made then as well.

The central characters are Max (John Buffalo Mailer, son of author Norman), a relentlessly happy-go-lucky type, and Joy (Eden Epstein), a sad-looking woman who walks into his bakery one day, and on whom he immediately develops a fixation. So it's all the luckier for him that very late that same night she walks into the bar where he's briefly filling in for the owner who is walking a drunken customer home (New York City watering holes were clearly kinder, gentler places in the 1950s).

Max immediately begins chatting up the far more reserved Joy, beginning a very long, very deep conversation of the type heard only in terrible plays. They eventually retire to Max' apartment, where their intense discussion goes on even longer before they (mercifully for both them and us) fall into bed.

Here's a sampling of the dialogue from James Patrick Nelson's script (based on his play, which had a 2016 staged reading in NYC) that you'll be hearing: "You're not like anyone I've ever met." "Everything looks better on the other side of a glass." "You know more about me than anyone I've ever met." "You've given me back my faith in God." Keep in mind that the film's running time is a mere 77 minutes. That's a pretty high cheesy dialogue-to-minute ratio.

The Second Sun has plenty of surprises in store about the two main characters, although to reveal them would be too much of a spoiler. Since it's spotlighted in the film's trailer, however, it can be mentioned that the Holocaust is involved, and that both Max and Joy have suffered major tragedies and great loss in their lives. Also, be warned that wild coincidences abound, including one involving a phone number that defies the laws of probability if not bad writing.

To relieve the incessant talkiness, the film also features such a plethora of dance sequences   taking place both in reality and the characters' imaginations that one begins to suspect it secretly pines to be a musical. Several flashback sequences are shown in black-and-white, while most of the proceedings feature warm, brownish hues, because apparently brown is the color of nostalgia.

It would take actors on the order of Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro to pull off this sort of stilted, stagey material. So it's not too derogatory to say that, despite their best efforts, both Mailer and Epstein are unable to make their characters remotely convincing, and even when the reason for Mailer's overdoing the Noo Yawk accent become apparent, it hardly elevates his work.  

Before the film is over, viewers will have learned the meaning of the word "bashert," which is Yiddish for "destiny." But it's another Yiddish word that proves apt for this film, which uses the Holocaust as a backdrop for cheap melodrama, and that's "schmaltz."

Distributor: Mailer Tuchman Media
Cast: Eden Epstein, John Buffalo Mailer, Ciaran Byrne, Claudia Peters, Sophie von Haselberg
Director: Jennifer Gelfer
Screenwriter: James Patrick Nelson
Producers: Michael Mailer, Alessandro Penazzi, Matthew Berkowitz
Executive producer: Martin Tuchman
Director of photography: Mattia Polombi
Production designer: Jimena Azula
Costume designer: Kama K. Royz

77 minutes