Rates: * *
Why Did I Watch It? Part of the Blank Check series on Nora Ephron.
On Christmas Eve in LA, a group of misfits man the phones at a bargain basement suicide hotline. They’ve lost government funding and are getting shut down, and are all of them are struggling with their personal lives; meanwhile they have to talk down the desparate characters who call in. Yes, this is a comedy; somehow mental health, self harm and loneliness need to be made fun.
Nora Ephron’s follow up to her rom-com blockbuster ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ is a bizarre black comedy misfire. The project was probably always doomed; if you are going to try and make a movie where desperate, potentially suicidal, people feature, she is not the right director to make it (I was trying to think who could pull off this difficult act: the Coen Brothers?). Everything about this is just slightly off. No shock that the laughs are few, and that the best part of the movie – an all in Christmas dinner towards the end – comes once the hotline stops ringing.
A game, and stacked, cast do their best, but the script is not helping them out. Martin, in a demented wig, plays likable sad sack Phillip. In the movie’s first half hour there are several jokes at his expense, indicating he is not very good at his job; he lets the phone ring for too long, he is fussy and formal, he offers weird advice. While this is not riotous, it is mildly amusing. Later in the film, his co-worker declares her love for him, marvelling at how brilliant he is with the callers. Yes, everyone agrees: this guy is a GENIUS, at handling those suicide calls. What the effing heck?
This is mild compared to the other bizarreo elements. Leiv Shreiber, in his first film, appears as a cross dresser: not handled delicately. Steven Wright appears in one scene to shoot himself. Gary Shandling plays a douchebag landlord who one of the other characters murders; and the gang’s attempt to dispose of the body and cover it up is played like ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’. These are very strange things to try and mine laughs from, for what is meant to be a romantic comedy.
But it is still a Nora Ephron film, and there are a few good lines, and the odd back-and-forth exchange has some crackle. The characters ARE likable, but you want to like them more than the movie gives you reason to. And Adam Sandler, in one of his first film roles, and who otherwise plays a character best described as ‘annoying’, sings one funny song. Oh! And Jon Stewart and Parker Posey in tiny roles, as a couple of jerks.
These good moments really stand out when they arrive, so flat does the rest of it fall.