Tuesday, April 1, 2014

MIDLIFE (Greg Travis, 2014) - A REVIEW

Greg Travis, Leliani Sarelle, Lee Chen, Nancy Ma, Debra Wilson, Amanda Sorvino, Lisa London, Billy Wirth, Laci Kay, Elie Viane Sonet. 103 minutes.

MIDLIFE charts the personal journey of David Stanton (the film's writer/ director Greg Travis), a salesman suffering a midlife crisis, and trying to save his advertising job and so his future. He's an alcoholic, his ex-wife (Amanda Sorvino) is a mentally imbalanced recovering drug addict, his teenage daughter (Laci Kay) is troubled, and David is essentially lost. Giving a pep talk about his vocation at the beginning of the film, David tells his audience that a great salesman should be a good friend to his customers. And yet he is not a friend to himself, and has lost his self-respect.

Greg Travis is excellent as David, creating a fully-rounded character - a vivacious joker hiding a broken heart. David's charm and palpable inner desperation keep one invested in his arc, and Travis's performance recalls a little of Ben Gazzara in Cassavetes's THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976). The film itself bears a Cassavetes influence, particularly during the film's highlight, an extended section where David bumps into his first wife (Leilani Sarelle from BASIC INSTINCT, 1992), and they drunkenly attempt to rekindle their flame, whilst in her apartment, a background of family drama plays out that makes it clear she is in the middle of her own personal nightmare too. The scene builds in intensity, and is as loose, edgy and alive as the best of JC. It's the heart of the movie for the aftermath teaches David that the past needs to stay put. 'We almost made it to close.' Life as a sales pitch you make every day until there's no sale to be made. The incident also teaches David that everyone is suffering some kind of crisis, and the trick is to help others and accept help. His own salvation comes in the form of a kindly Chinese mother and daughter (Lee Chen and Nancy Ma, the latter having a smile that could melt icebergs), and also his daughter. In life, eventually it's the young who prop up the old because the old lose their way, burdened by their emotional baggage.

The resolution of the story is surprising and might initially feel contrived to create a 'feelgood' ending, but it's actually a braver thing to end optimistically in this era of abundant bleak dramas, and the ending is set up at the beginning of the movie, completing David's arc satisfyingly. MIDLIFE is a darkly and gently funny movie, with a serious core. There's an element of satire about the neediness and selfishness of the L.A. rat race, and despite the abundance of L.A. satires and middle-aged dramas, the film as a whole feels fresh. The road trip facets of the film keep the pace moving, and the characters are engaging. It has heart, humour and warmth, but it isn't queasy about going into the dark corners. In Greg Travis, whose interesting career has so far encompassed being a magician, a stand-up comedian and an actor in films like SHOWGIRLS (1995), WATCHMEN (2009) and LOST HIGHWAY (1997), we have a filmmaker and actor who it would be wise to keep an eye on in the future. There's lessons learned, things lost and found, and wisdom gained in this film, and it makes for a memorable, deceptively light entertainment.  

The website for the film.