Sundance 2017: Comedy Loves Misery in “L.A. Times”

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Directed and Written by: Michelle Morgan
Starring: Michelle Morgan, Jorma Taccone, Dree Hemingway, Kentucker Audley, Tate Donovan, Margarita Levieva
Produced by: Ryland Aldrich, Alix Madigan, Jared Stern
Music by: Anthony B. Willis
Cinematography by: Nicholas Wiesnet
Editing by: John Michael Powell
Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

*****

“O great calamity
Ditch of iniquity and tears
How I abhor this place
Its sweet and bitter taste
Has left me wretched, wretching on all fours
Los Angeles, I’m yours”

-The Decemberists

*****

Michelle Morgan, the writer and star of her directorial debut, L.A. Times, has a caustic narrative voice that independent film festivals look to celebrate; and it speaks volumes to Morgan’s comedy that we come out of her first film feeling a little sickened as well as pleasantly surprised by that voice’s strength. The screenwriter of an underappreciated Kristen Wiig vehicle, Girl Most Likely, and the 2013 Sundance short K.I.T., Morgan has crafted an unholy hybrid: a Lawrence Kasdan-sized ensemble romance that cultivates equal laughs for fans of Girls and Valentine’s Day. Grotesque but light, brazenly lewd yet strangely stylistically conservative, L.A. Times is an unforceful independent comedy that, pleasing above all else, gives appropriate shrift to a highly talented crowd of independent filmmakers, including Andre Hyland, Dree Hemingway, Robert Schwartzman, and Kentucker Audley.

Unfortunately, besides the intelligence of its casting and a few choice one-liners from Morgan, this film is a mostly dull exercise in romantic revisionism, wherein the staunch anti-love (and anti-joy) gimmick is the filmmakers’ raison d’etre. Morgan is a gifted joke writer, as evidenced as much by the work here as by her story credit on an upcoming Lego movie. But in this 97-minute flick which had its World Premiere this week at the Sundance Film Festival, an upsettingly wide margin of failed to hit punchlines results in long stretches of dead air that turn the normally exciting first viewing of a potential festival favorite sour.

Consider Morgan’s character Annette, an entitled, self-satisfied Angeleno whose anti-social boyfriend Elliott (played with Droopy Dog charm by The Lonely Island’s Jorma Taccone, also an executive-producer) doesn’t much like her. Annette and Elliott bicker over the slightest things – dinner parties, tones of voice, you name it – but much of the film is devoted to the fluctuating status of their painful relationship. Simultaneous to their extensive troubles are those of Annette’s best friend Baker (Dree Hemingway), whose feeble affair with a noxious older man (Tate Donovan, appropriately slimy) pushes her a little too close to a blood relative (filmmaker Kentucker Audley, excellent.) The great Hemingway (of Listen Up Philip and Starlet) and Morgan are quite a team together, segueing naturalistically between ruminative conversations about the overrun dating world of Los Angeles and debates on the merits of incest. But when Baker interacts with Donovan’s character, their conversations are rendered in a series of clichés – like the misogynistic aristocrat dismissing his girlfriend’s furniture tastes as frivolous – that bump you. From scene to scene, you are left wondering what happened to the amusing toxicity and complexity of the previous sscenes.

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This kind of jarring, discontinuous admixture of subtlety and tackiness typifies the entire film, suggesting some kind of error in the actual final product. I remain unclear as to where blame lies in this case, but certain below-the-line credits are simply not effective. Sound work and photography are impersonal enough to let the comedy come through, but there’s nothing pretty going on here: it is visually direct about its jokes to the detriment of its art. In another example, there appears to be no underlying personality or clear suggestion of L.A. social life in the production design or locations used for these characters’ experiences. When Baker and her beau go to a pretentious furniture store, the elitist vibe recalled Portlandia’s “Two Girls, Two Shirts” skit far more than, say, La La Land. Whereas that recent awards juggernaut represents an ode (itself somewhat odious and pretentious) to Southern California, nothing in Morgan’s film defines itself against the city, specifically, besides the instances where someone literally says the name “Los Angeles.” A coffee-shop here, a hiking trail there – as a 25-year resident of the city, I recognized nothing besides the view around Griffith Park. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem is Chazelle’s film was not so recently prominent.

Ultimately, L.A. Times comes off as a derivative recombination of The Big Chill, Flirting with Disaster, and Tiny Furniture: all brilliant landmarks in the world of American independent film, but none to which Morgan’s feature lives up. The great loss here is the opportunity to showcase Morgan’s directorial work with the indie-world’s great filmmakers, clearest here in the tightropes walked between poisonousness and adorability by their characters. Robert Schwartzman, who recently directed his own first feature, appears for a few bright moments as an alternative romantic possibility for one of the key characters. And Audley, a major proponent of contemporary cinema with his NoBudge streaming website and Movies T-shirts, is sad fun as Baker’s conflicted cousin (I would gladly watch a film devoted entirely to the hilariously forbidden relationship between Hemingway’s Baker and Audley’s disturbing-funny Peter.) There is great fun here, too, in such scenes as Taccone sitting the corner of a friend’s party, or later, struggling to hook up with a demanding prostitute portrayed by Margarita Levieva.

Such occasions, though, are rare, as Morgan devotes herself primarily to Annette’s foibles and misbehavior. As a writer, Morgan helps Annette and her boyfriend seem socially skewed to the point of severe depression; under her direction, the actors come off as grating and unnatural in a strangely antic environment. That unfortunate choice may derail the film’s out-of-fest prospects for audiences looking for a more complex – or funny – independent comedy on their streaming services.

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