The Time Being: Toronto Review

Nenad Cicin-Sain's debut gets credit for moody visuals but doesn't have a story to match them.

Frank Langella plays a dying man who offers Wes Bentley work he might be wise to refuse.

TORONTO — "Artists don't have families," according to Frank Langella's Warner, a mysterious millionaire making strange demands of struggling painter Daniel (Wes Bentley) in Nenad Cicin-Sain's The Time Being. The blanket assertion threatens to become prophesy in a film whose arresting images deserve a more fully realized script; though Cicin-Sain sustains a solemnly philosophical mood throughout and his cast abets him expertly, the picture is unlikely to find the support needed for arthouse success.

Daniel is a painter whose financial worries are sketched too lightly to justify the marital strife we quickly see. No sooner has he spent a couple of days doing odd but well-paid jobs for Warner than his wife (Ahna O'Reilly) is yelling about the pressure she's under watching their son; within a couple of days she has left him. If this troubled marriage is underdeveloped, other scenes -- like one with Daniel's gallery dealer, who looks at him as if Daniel just wrecked his car -- also leave the impression that critical scenes were cut during editing.

The film is a bit better at establishing Daniel's relationship with Warner, who summons him to his Spanish Colonial mansion after buying one of his paintings. Daniel hopes for a commission, but instead is given an unexplained assignment: Take this video camera and film the sunrise tomorrow. Subsequent jobs make it clear (to us, if not immediately to Daniel) that this is a kind of stalking mission. But if what Warner wants is surveillance video of a museum tour guide (Sarah Paulson), why wouldn't he hire a private investigator and make his interests clear?

A generous viewer might construct a reason: Daniel makes paintings from his own photographs, and Warner requires his aesthetic eye more than a P.I.'s detached professionalism. But that's a stretch, and a more plausible explanation is that the script (co-written by Cicin-Sain and Richard N. Gladstein) simply would have nothing without this manufactured mystery.

If Cicin-Sain (an advertising and music-video director making his first feature) had found a meatier screenplay about the themes he wants to explore here -- art and selfishness, loss and identity -- all the evidence suggests the movie could have been entrancing. He and his tech team offer beautiful images about images -- eyes and camera lenses reflecting the object of contemplation; paint moving abstractly through liquid -- and are especially good at using cryptic close-ups in transitions from one scene to another. But even Langella, eyes welling with regret and voice ripe with sad wisdom, can't conjure enough gravitas to do the work of a script that's not all there.

Production Company: FilmColony
Cast: Wes Bentley, Frank Langella, Ahna O'Reilly, Sarah Paulson, Corey Stoll, Gina Gallego
Director: Nenad Cicin-Sain
Screenwriter: Nenad Cicin-Sain, Richard N. Gladstein
Producer: Richard N. Gladstein
Executive producers: Jerome Gladstein, Anthony J. Burton
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Music: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Costume designer: Van Broughton Ramsey
Editors: Haines Hall, Evan Schiff
Sales: Richard N. Gladstein, FilmColony
No rating, 87 minutes