‘The Sweet Life’: LAFF Review

Courtesy of Mockingbird Pictures
Engaging but wildly uneven.

Chris Messina and Abigail Spencer play lonely souls who make a suicide pact in a road-trip comedy that premiered at the LA Film Festival.

Equal parts rom-com contrivance and soulful chemistry, The Sweet Life puts two forlorn Chicagoans on the road to San Francisco, with a mixed bag of detours along the way. The twist is that the brass ring at the end of their spontaneous trip is a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge.

It’s tricky, to put it mildly, to use suicidal impulses as a story engine for a comedy, and director Rob Spera and screenwriter Jared Rappaport don’t quite pull it off as they navigate the middle ground between dark humor and emotional catharsis. But they do devise some vibrantly unpredictable pit stops for their central duo, brought to aching life in this good-looking, low-budget feature by Abigail Spencer and an especially sympathetic Chris Messina.

Their characters meet at loose ends in the nighttime city, after a wordless opening sequence has told you everything you need to know about Messina’s Kenny Pantaleo, a hawker of Sweet Life ice cream with no customers. In his neat-as-a-pin white uniform, he spends his days trudging through Chicago’s Loop with his bicycle cart. Spencer’s Lolita Nowicki is, by obvious contrast, violet-haired, scruffy and argumentative. If she’s also the all-too-obvious shot of life that he needs, the actors deepen the setup by playing against the standard beats.

Lolita and Kenny debate the definition of personal space, discover they have a therapist in common and, in a moment of focused abandon, hit the road thanks to a terrifically rich instance of mistaken identity, one that places the keys to a Mercedes in Kenny’s hand. Taking the wheel, Lolita points them toward the West Coast, where she insists that they’ll end it all in dramatic, if sadly unoriginal, fashion.

As the journey toward death of these fumbling souls proceeds through a series of stolen cars, hitched rides and Greyhound buses, the self-destruction angle is set aside as the plot device it is. Lolita and Kenny do, however, discuss their respective pain, mostly at her instigation. Rappaport’s dialogue reflects their intelligence as well as how well acquainted they’ve become with dejection. “When was the last time that you felt anything?” Lolita asks the more contained Kenny, who at another point divulges that “sex isn’t really in my repertoire these days.” She’s still interested, but says she doesn’t experience pleasure anymore, a claim that’s contradicted by her full-throated laugh.

TV vet Spera doesn’t overplay the paradox that finds these two end-of-the-road travelers not just confronting life but, in the movie’s most vivid believe-it-or-not twist, racing through Wyoming to save a life. Gavin Kelly’s crisp, bright lensing underscores that vitality while putting a fresh spin on the varied locales. Among the film’s stronger elements, there’s a subtle tenderness to even the wackiest of encounters: the genial response of a convenience store clerk (Karan Soni) to Lolita’s attempt at larceny; the hesitation of a hitchhiking duo (Tyson Ritter and J.D. Evermore) whose hillbilly getups are a strategic disguise.

Kenny’s encounter with an ex (Maggie Siff — like Spencer, a Mad Men alum) works because it’s nicely underplayed. Whether it convincingly explains how he’s gotten to this point is another matter, but it’s far more persuasive than the overwrought revelations about Lolita involving her mother (Jayne Brook). Worst of all is a painfully forced face-off with three young creeps in a camper, a scene that adds nothing to the story except faux drama, complete with a suddenly materialized gun.

Lolita doesn’t quite add up as a character, but Spencer delivers some lovely moments, most affectingly when Lolita takes the reluctant Kenny to bed for the first time. Spera and DP Kelly frame the scene with the right balance of intimacy and comedy; the actors, in deep shadow, are touchingly awkward and sincere. There’s also a fine balance in the way that Kenny and Lolita alternate taking care of each other. Which makes the story’s simplistic wrap-up all the harder to take. That the end credits include suicide prevention info doesn’t remedy the increasingly confused depiction of troubled psyches on a wild ride.

Venue: LA Film Festival (Limelight)
Production company: Mockingbird Pictures

Cast: Chris Messina, Abigail Spencer, Maggie Siff, Tyson Ritter, J.D. Evermore, Jayne Brook, Karan Soni, Nick Searcy
Director: Rob Spera
Screenwriter: Jared Rappaport
Producers: Julie Lynn, Bonnie Curtis
Executive producers: Michael Druyanoff, Leigh Ernst Friestedt, Rodrigo Garcia, Maria McDonald, Ruth Mutch, Amy Lynn Quinn, Rachid Rizk, Neal Schneider, Vernon Taylor
Director of photography: Gavin Kelly
Production designer: Denise Pizzini
Costume designer: Alysia Raycraft
Editor: Matt Maddox
Composer: Jeff Beal 
Casting: Amy Lippens
Sales: Preferred Content

Not rated, 90 minutes