The Life and Death of an Unhappily Married Man follows Riley (Tommy Beardmore) a 29-year old Chicagoan who loses his wife and his job in the same week. Written and directed by Josh Hope, the story is set in the Midwest and paired beautifully with music by Tony Green. I was thoroughly interested in the premise, but by the end I found myself with more questions than answers. I felt that despite solid acting, the characters (the female roles in particular) relied on stereotype rather than the kind of specificity that brings a role to real life. Inconsistency overshadowed some potentially fascinating storylines, and I kept finding myself wanting to reach through the screen and ask for clarification.
For example, Riley’s very first complaint about his (soon to be ex) wife is that after years of marriage, he is living with a total stranger. Yet from the action, we clearly understand that her every move and mood have become mind-numbingly routine. A genuine exploration of this boredom could be interesting, but in it’s place we get a montage of her annoying habits. While moving out he narrates about the strange feeling of leaving a place for the last time, but when he nonchalantly lights a cigarette outside it seems like there is really nothing out of the ordinary going on at all. To feel the relief of letting go, an audience must feel the panic of trying to hold onto something. Without the second you can’t have the first, and the stakes were simply not set high enough to buy the feeling of free-fall that the main character was trying to convey.
Following this first scene, our protagonist’s interactions with women took on a distracting pattern. I was really frustrated to find the female characters were written like pit stops, places to refuel and recharge. Once they doled out either sex or sage advice, they were shrunk conveniently in the rear view mirror. In an exceptionally strange twist, the only female character with power seems to be a high school girl named Caitlin who actually talks Riley into making out. I enjoyed all of the actresses, I just wish they had been given more to work with.
While all of the relationships teeter on the verge of interesting, few are given the time or the words to fully develop. The first couple he meets on his way introduce him to shrooms, and good camera work makes for a pretty amusing scene. While the metaphor of emerging from the woods naked, on an open road, is an interesting one, I’m not sure that it represented any real character development. The film falls into this trap a few times: for everything implied by the dreamy landscapes and the contemplative guitar, inner life stops at the edge of the cornfield- just when you were ready to follow the characters into the maze.
For example, one would think that arriving home after your marriage had ended on such a traumatic note would be an experience unto itself. Do you view your parents differently? Do you feel like a failure? Do you have second thoughts? None of these questions would be asked or answered, I realized, during the scene where he sets off from his parents’ house:
“Where are you gonna go?”
“Wherever I end up.”
“Ok, well call us when you figure out where you’re going.”
If enough of what makes a character tick is withheld from an audience, lines that are meant to be coy or abstract risk coming off as opaque. When Riley’s mother asks if he did anything stupid the night before, he answers, “No more than the usual.” Unfortunately, we haven’t spent enough time with him to have any idea what “the usual” entails.
Overall I think the actors honestly and thoughtfully portrayed their roles within the confines of the writing, and I look forward to seeing all of their work in the future. Beardmore performed with consistency in every scene, and he was well cast as the frustrated guy caught up in a quarter-life crisis. Riley’s mother, played by Rusty Schwimmer, gave a natural, grounded performance with a real sense of humor, something I also found in the character of Tommy, by Kurt Conroyd. Conroyd played clear objectives and his choices spurred the action of the second half of the film, he also brought new energy and a spark of real risk to the storyline.
The stakes do go up near the end of the film in a quietly tense and really well played scene between Mark (Patrick Zielinski), Becca (D’Arcy Felona) and Riley (Tommy Beardmore). Our main character may have found something that really hurts to lose, although again I wasn’t quite convinced that he felt the risk or the fear of not getting what he wanted. I think that part of the success of this scene is that we are given more than a few minutes to watch the actors play and maneuver their way through a scene together. I think simplicity is a daring choice, and the writing could have pared down even more to up the tension.
Stories about people who lose it all are interesting only if they wanted it all in the first place, or if they threw it away for something better. I’m all for a story in which the characters wander around aimlessly like many of us do in real life, but when it feels like that aimless character is at the wheel instead of the writer, I want out of the car.
I think we are drawn to stories the open road because they represent so much for us, as a culture and as individuals. But what starts out as an elusive concept starts to feel pretty mundane once you have it, and even confining. Perhaps the real story begins when we have to figure out what to do with all that freedom- if that’s really what it is.
The Life and Death of an Unhappily Married Man
Directed by Josh Hope
Starring Tommy Breadmore, Rusty Schwimmer
Produced by Alchemist Blues, Olive Entertainment