2018 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: “The Great Pretenders” fails at every genre it pretends to be. As a romance, it never makes you believe its characters relationships. As a comedy, it fails to make you laugh at the characters it seems to have active contempt for. Finally, as a film with a puzzle structure, the different moments never add up to a competent film.
The film begins with Mona (Maelle Poesy) back in New York at a particularly sad dive bar. She’s directing her own autobiographical play about her latest failed relationship with Nick (Linas Phillips). However, she waits for Nick, as her actress requested to meet him for research. Returning to meet the man who broke her heart sends Mona on a self-destructive journey she regards with little more than a shrug. Poesy gives the most interesting performance of the film. Her eye rolls and general disregard for those around her make her a great entry point for the audience.
Then the movie shifts. Its focus now rests on Chris (Keith Poulson), a man-child actor who’s incapable of taking any ownership or responsibility. The movie loves to laugh at this pathetic loser who needs to watch a YouTube video to make eggs. He beds women knowing his recent gonorrhea diagnosis, but swears he’s a good guy where it counts. To him, it only counts if he saves women and children first if on a sinking boat. What could be an amusing side character becomes a joke the movie runs into the ground. The time we spend with him is wasted. It’s time to move on.
And move on we do, all the way to Therese (Esther Garret), the other actor in the show. She manages to be even more of a one-note caricature than Chris. The first thing we see from her perspective is her calling her Mom to tell her that she’s fallen in love with this guy she just slept with. From there, the movie continues to play up her neediness. The tired stereotype only becomes more blatant and tiresome. Garret’s performance fails to add more to the character. It’s a vacant performance for a vacant role.
By the time we circle back to Nick’s perspective, we’ve lost all hope of caring about these people and how they weave in and out of each other’s lives. The screenplay by Jack Dunphy employs an out of sequence structure to add a mystery element to these mundane lives. What’s the grand mystery? Who in this quartet was the origin of their gonorrhea outbreak? Even that conclusion is a lazy punchline.
Perhaps all of these disparate pieces could’ve produced a couple of laughs. However, The filmmaking bewilders at every turn. It appears to emulate a clunky student film. The camera consistently stares into the spotlight or remains out of focus as the action goes on. One strains at every turn to see what’s happening. On top of that, the shot composition contains little variety. Everything takes place in nauseating close-ups. Add on shaky cam, as if it was shot on a flimsy iPhone, and you have a disorientating visual experience. Director Nathan Silver wants to blur the line between reality and the play. The only thing he successfully blurs is our basic understanding of why anything is happening or why it matters.
All of these characters converge, where else, but with an off-Broadway theater. Here the film tries to come to some sort of “point.” What does it mean to always be so introspective? Does it keep one narcissistic and unfocused on those around them? As the movie critiques it’s insufferably naval gazing the first hour, it stops. It drops an empty platitude. “Honesty is hard. Confessional is easy.” Honestly, this movie deserves to be scrapped.