Review: ‘The Argument,’ starring Dan Fogler, Emma Bell, Danny Pudi, Maggie Q, Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Fogler and Emma Bell in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Argument”

Directed by Robert Schwartzman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the romantic comedy “The Argument” features a racially diverse cast (white, black and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A playwright and his actress girlfriend, with the help of some of their friends and random strangers, recreate an argument that the couple had to determine who was correct in the argument.

Culture Audience: “The Argument” will primarily appeal to people who like over-the-top, fast-paced comedies with many unrealistic moments but enough wacky sensibilities to keep people watching to see how it all ends.

Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The absurdist romantic comedy “The Argument” will test the patience of many viewers who are looking for a more conventional way that love and relationships are depicted in the story’s plot. The movie suffers when the “repeat loop” part of the story is focused only on the six main characters. But “The Argument” is at its best during “casting session/script reading” scenes in the last third of the movie, when random strangers are introduced to the main characters and turn the movie into many laugh-out-loud moments that are sly commentaries about ego posturing and stereotypes in relationships.

Directed with a madcap pace by Robert Schwartzman and written by Zac Stanford, “The Argument” (which takes place in Los Angeles) centers on an artistic couple named Jack (played by Dan Fogler) and Lisa (played by Emma Bell), who live together in a modest Hollywood home. Jack is a playwright/screenwriter, and Lisa is an actress. They’ve been dating each other for three years.

It’s revealed later in the movie that Jack and Lisa met through a fairly obscure horror movie that Jack wrote called “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Lisa had a small background role as a zombie in the movie. Jack’s most recent project is an independent play called “Wolfgang,” which has Lisa as the leading female role of Constanze, the wife of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play has a modern comedic tone to it, and it’s recently ended its run at a small theater. Based on the number of people in the audience for the last show, the play’s attendance was fairly good, but not great.

The biggest problem that Jack had with the play is how Lisa and the vain actor who was cast as Mozart seemed just a little too flirtatious with each on stage and off stage. The actor’s name is Paul (played by Tyler Christopher Williams), and Jack is jealous because Paul is younger and better-looking than Jack is. Jack’s suspicion that Lisa and Paul are sexually attracted to each other is a nagging thought that he’s kept to himself, but it later explodes in messy and uncomfortable ways in other parts of the story.

Now that the play is over, Jack thinks he and Lisa won’t have to deal with Paul anymore. After the last night of “Wolfgang,” Jack plans to have a small cocktail party at his and Lisa’s home. Jack has invited his and Lisa’s two closest friends—married couple Brett and Sarah—to celebrate.

Brett (played by Danny Pudi) is Jack’s eager-to-please literary agent. Sarah (played by Maggie Q) is an entertainment lawyer with an icy demeanor and a photographic memory. Jack has another intention for the party, which is pretty obvious in the message that he sends to Brett and Sarah: Jack is going to propose to Lisa.

When Sarah and Brett show up for the party, Brett is happy to be there, but Sarah seems very uninterested. She explains that she has to get up early in the morning because she has an important contract negotiation meeting the next day. Sarah was the attorney who negotiated the overseas rights to “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night,” but she’s frustrated that Jack hasn’t been a lucrative client for Brett.

Sarah blames Jack and Brett for Jack not being able to get much work as a writer. None of Jack’s screenplays has sold since “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Sarah thinks that Jack isn’t very talented and that Brett isn’t a great agent. By contrast, Brett is in awe of Jack and isn’t ready to give up on him so easily. At one point during the party, Brett gushes in Jack’s presence that Jack “isn’t just a great writer … he’s a genius.”

The party is interrupted by two guests whom Jack did not expect: Paul and his ditzy Australian girlfriend Trina (played by Cleopatra Coleman), who soon finds out that she’s not the only one who’s suspected that there’s been sexual tension between Paul and Lisa. Jack is very surprised to see Paul and Trina at his door, but he lets them in because he doesn’t want to be rude and because he finds out that Lisa invited them.

Jack takes Lisa aside for a private conversation in their dining room, and they briefly argue about Paul being at the party. (Observant viewers might notice that the dining room walls in the movie have posters of Schwartzman’s first two movies that he directed: 2016’s “Dreamland” and 2018’s “The Unicorn.”) Lisa insists that she told Jack in advance that Paul would be there. Jack is equally insistent that Lisa never told him, because if she had, he would’ve remembered. They reach a stalemate but agree that Paul might as well stay at the party.

As the party goes on, Jack gets more and more irritated because Lisa and Paul keep re-enacting flirtatious and sexually suggestive scenes from the play in front of everyone. Lisa and Paul think it’s hilarious, but Jack obviously doesn’t. Meanwhile, Sarah looks very bored, Brett tries to keep things friendly with everyone, and Trina starts drinking enough alcohol to get tipsy and overly talkative. Trina mentions that she and Paul (who has a day job as a fitness instructor) got together as a couple because she signed up for one of his fitness classes, in the hopes that he would notice her and want to date her.

It turns out that Trina is a big fan of “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night” and she actually remembers Lisa’s role in the film. Trina gushes like a fangirl about the movie, which endears her to Jack and Lisa. However, Paul continues to get on Jack’s nerves. When Jack serves a charcuterie board at the party, Paul says he can’t eat almost anything that’s served at the party because he’s a vegan and he’s on a strict diet for a fitness commercial that he’s about to film. Jack is also baking an apple pie, which he plans to serve as dessert.

As the night wears on, Paul and Trina grow more uncomfortable with Lisa and Paul’s flirtatious shenanigans in front of everyone. Jack starts rambling about Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival who was famously jealous of Mozart’s talent, fame and accolades. Lisa makes a seemingly innocuous remark that Jack “isn’t really comfortable with the word ‘genius.'”

Jack interprets the comment to mean that Lisa doesn’t think that Jack isn’t very smart, so he shouts at her, “That’s not funny!” The argument between Jack and Lisa escalates to the point when Jack ends up taking the apple pie out of the oven and throws it on the ground. And the party abruptly ends.

The next morning, Jack and Lisa are in bed and they continue to argue about what happened the previous night. “I wish I could redo the whole night so you could see how wrong you are!” Lisa shouts. Jack says the same thing to her. And then they have an “aha” moment and decide to recreate the party and have the guests decide if Jack or Lisa was the one was in the wrong.

The middle section of “The Argument” is a little hard to take because of the shrill and annoying ways that the party is recreated. Because the movie makes it clear from the beginning that it’s an absurdist comedy, viewers will have to suspend their disbelief that Jack and Lisa’s party guests have nothing better to do with their time than go through with these ridiculous re-enactments. Trina shows up hung over, and she reluctantly agrees to get drunk again for every re-enactment. Jack even goes as far as preparing the same food over and over again every time they do a re-enactment.

Of course, the re-enactments don’t go smoothly because no one (except for Sarah, who has a photographic memory) can remember exactly how they acted and what they said the first time the party happened. Because everyone goes “off-script” at one point or another, it leads to more tension and arguments.

Sarah’s jaded attitude becomes even more apparent when Trina says being an entertainment lawyer must be glamorous, and Sarah’s deadpan response is, “It’s just a job. I don’t even like movies.” Eventually, Sarah gets fed up with the re-enactments and leaves.

“The Argument” finally starts to improve in the last third of the movie, when the party guests find out that Jack has put an ad on Craiglist to get actors (whose character names are not revealed in the movie) to come to his and Lisa’s home and to portray the party guests during these re-enactments, with the original party guests (except for Sarah) in attendance. Jack has even written a script, which is heavily skewed with his biased perspective.

The actors who answered the Craigslist ad have been told that it’s supposed to be an audition/read-through, with Jack being the one to decide who will play which role. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Jack casts the best-looking “hunky” guy of the auditionees to portray Jack, who’s written as the hero of the story. (The role of Actor Jack is played by Mark Ryder.)

Actor Trina is an ultra-liberal, ultra-politically correct African American activist (played by Marielle Scott), who over-exaggerates and bungles the real Trina’s Australian accent, which offends Trina. Actor Lisa (played by Charlotte McKinney) is a big-breasted blonde who has her bikini photos on hand, while Lisa is offended that Jack wants a “bimbo” to portray her.

Actor Brett (played by Karan Brar) pretty much agrees with everyone, while the real Brett is offended that he’s being portrayed as a pushover without a mind of his own. Meanwhile, since Sarah isn’t there, Jack decides that Actor Brett can use a sock puppet to portray Sarah. Actor Paul (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a loudmouth wannabe rapper (who wears gold chains), which offends the real Paul, who’s nothing like this walking racial stereotype, but Actor Paul ends up upstaging everyone in the room.

What Jack has written in the script is read aloud by the auditionees to hilarious results, because it reveals Jack’s perceptions and opinions of everyone at the party. If this “script reading” part of the plot had been put earlier in the movie, the quality of “The Argument” would have been much higher.

Fogler and Coleman handle the slapstick scenes fairly well, while Williams makes great use of facial expressions. All of the actors playing the “auditionees” are very good and bring much-needed spark to the movie. Stewart-Jarrett is the movie’s biggest scene stealer, since he’s easily the funniest part of this movie, whose comedic scenes are hit and miss.

Fogler, Bell, Pudi, Q, Williams and Coleman are talented, but the way the characters are written tend to become one-note caricatures by the middle of the film. Having other actors come into the story to portray those characters is a clever send-up that works well. The discomfort that the real Jack, Lisa, Brett, Paul and Trina feel at seeing how other people portray them is actually funny, whereas the original argument between Lisa and Jack wasn’t that funny. There’s an almost British sensibility to this “script within a script” parody.

Because director Schwartzman moves the pace of “The Argument” along fairly quickly, it’s easier to take the cringeworthy aspects of the movie. For example, some of the people in “The Argument” over-act—and not in a good way that was intended by the screenplay. And there’s some physical comedy that could have been choreographed better.

The Jack character can be very grating with his “control freak” insecurities and insistence on always being right. Lisa is also irritating with her tendency to be self-absorbed and not very empathetic to other people’s feelings. Some viewers might find it hard to root for this couple.

“The Argument” can best be appreciated when the main characters (and their flaws) are put up to a proverbial mirror and they see how complete strangers (who are wannabe actors) perceive and act out their personalities. Sarah eventually finds out that Jack cast her as a sock puppet, and so her reaction (which isn’t as funny as it could’ve been) is also part of the movie’s plot. If people are willing to keep watching “The Argument” until the “script reading” scenes, it will be worth the wait, because those scenes redeem what could have been a completely annoying movie.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Argument” on digital and VOD on September 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Babysplitters,’ starring Danny Pudi, Emily C. Chang, Mairara Walsh, Eddie Alfaro, Brian Thomas Smith and Mark Feuerstein

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eddie Alfaro, Mairara Walsh, Emily C. Chang and Danny Pudi in “Babysplitters” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Babysplitters”

Directed by Sam Friedlander

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “Babysplitters” features a racially diverse cast (Asians, white people and a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two married couples who are best friends with each other decide to have a baby together because one person in each marriage is having an infertility/genetic issue, but some disagreements cause chaos in this arrangement.

Culture Audience: “Babysplitters” will appeal primarily to people who like comedies about parenting, but even the most tolerant viewers will be annoyed by some of the ridiculous plot twists in the movie.

Eddie Alfaro, Mairara Walsh, Danny Pudi and Emily C. Chang in “Babysplitters” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The comedy film “Babysplitters” (written and directed by Sam Friedlander) took what could have been a very unique concept about unconventional parenting and then flushed all that potential down the toilet. The movie—which has an appealing and talented cast—starts out very strong, if a bit far-fetched, and then becomes an outlandish soap-opera train wreck in the last third of the movie before trying to salvage the story with a very formulaic and cop-out ending.

The movie begins, as most comedies about couples do, with a couple having sex. They are husband and wife Jeff Penaras (played by Danny Pudi) and Sarah Penaras (played by Emily C. Chang), who have been married for more than four years but still haven’t agreed on when’s the best time for them to start a family. As shown in the movie’s opening scene, this tension is affecting the sex that Jeff and Sarah are having in the bedroom of their rented Los Angeles home.

Sarah is soon going to turn 35, and Jeff (whose age isn’t stated but he looks like he’s a few years older than Sarah) begin to argue in bed because the issue has come up over when Sarah should get pregnant. She reminds Jeff that women who get pregnant over the age of 35 are considered to have geriatric pregnancies, which come with a high risk of miscarriages and birth defects.

Jeff says that hearing the word “geriatric” is a turnoff for him, and he seems shocked that Sarah thinks that they shouldn’t delay starting a family any longer. But it’s obvious that Jeff isn’t ready. And it has a lot to do with his fear that Sarah will love any children they have more than she loves him.

During the argument, Jeff tells Sarah: “You spend years finding the person you love most in the world, the person you want to spend your life with. Then, for some reason, you conspire to create a third person you like better than each other.”

Jeff adds, “I didn’t sign up to live my life according a biological clock that we don’t even know if you’re reading correctly.” (It’s a very ignorant statement to make, considering that most adults know that it’s harder and riskier for women to get pregnant when they’re over the age of 35.) Sarah replies, “That’s exactly what you signed up for when you married me!”

Family planning isn’t the only discontent in Jeff and Sarah’s marriage. They both feel stifled in jobs that they don’t really like. Jeff works in sales at an online start-up company called FRM 2 TBL, which sells organic farm-to-table food to consumers. (His official title is chief executive of new orders.)

Jeff hates working in an office job where he has to wear a suit and tie. His ideal job is to be an environmental sculpture artist, which is such a niche and unusual career choice that Sarah jokes that there’s only one job opening for it in their area, and it’s already been filled.

In lieu of his dream job, Jeff would rather spend most of his work time outdoors instead of sitting at a desk. But the only outdoor job at FRM 2 TBL is a field job that would be considered a demotion for Jeff. Sarah has an outdoor job, but it’s far beneath someone of her intelligence: She gives parking tickets.

Jeff also feels out-of-place in his job because most of the people who work there are about 10 to 15 years younger than he is, including the company’s CEO, Ben Harris (played by Ben Goldsmith), who likes to skateboard in the office hallways. There’s a hilarious scene in a conference room where Jeff’s leadership skills are tested with a group of millennial subordinates who are overly politically correct. Almost everything Jeff says is offensive to them, including his exasperated response to their criticism: “I can’t correct someone because I have a penis?”

One evening, Sarah and Jeff have a fateful dinner at a restaurant with their two best friends: another married couple named Don Small (played by Eddie Alfano) and Taylor Small (played by Maiara Walsh). Don (who works as a physical trainer) is about the same age as Jeff and Sarah, while Taylor (who’s a professional ballet dancer) is 27. The two couples have the type of friendship where they freely talk about their sex lives and marital issues with each other.

Over dinner, the subject comes up about Jeff and Sarah’s unresolved conflict over when they should start a family together. Sarah is very ready; Jeff is definitely not. The closest that Sarah and Jeff have to a child is their adorable female Chihuahua named Punkie Wooster.

Meanwhile, Taylor has gotten a new job as a principal dancer at a ballet company, which means that she doesn’t feel ready to get pregnant at this point in her life. However, Don is ready to start a family because his father passed away not too long ago, and Don wants any of his future children to be able to know Don’s mother. Don also says that he wants to be the biological father of any child he raises.

Finances are also an issue, because both couples think they’re not completely ready to be able to afford kids, but they think it wouldn’t be too much of a financial strain to have one child. And the spouse who’s more reluctant in the marriage to have kids (Jeff for the Penaras couple, Taylor for the Small couple) worries how it will affect their marriage and leisure time. Jeff makes an off-handed remark that they should all have a baby together and split custody and the cost of raising the child, so that they don’t have to be full-time parents.

Jeff mentions that he has some earlobe defects that run in his family, so Don (who’s very good-looking and has a very muscular physique) would be a better sperm donor than Jeff would be. Sarah thinks it’s all a ridiculous idea, but Taylor thinks it’s a great idea if all four of them agreed to it. “My parents had joint custody, and I turned out fine,” Taylor says.

Sarah says she definitely would want to go through the experience of carrying and giving birth to a child, while Taylor says she doesn’t want to go through that physical situation because, as a ballet dancer, she’s worried about how pregnancy will affect her body. The couples end the dinner with the “babysplitting” idea planted in their heads.

A series of events then happen which result in all four agreeing to Sarah getting pregnant with Bob’s sperm. Sarah is the last holdout before she agrees to the idea. She gives in to the plan because she thinks it will be one of the last chances she has to have a child before she gets too old and before Jeff changes his mind.

Before Sarah, Jeff, Taylor and Don all arrive at this decision, there’s a laugh-out-loud sequence of Sarah and Jeff visiting another married couple who are friends, but they’re not as close to Sarah and Jeff as Taylor and Don are. The other married couple are Marie (played by Andrée Vermeulen) and Brad (played by Kirk Zippel).

Sarah and Jeff’s visit with Marie and Brad is one of the best parts of “Babysplittlers” because of all the hijinks that ensue. Marie and Brad, who are overly permissive parents, have allowed a bunch of kids (about 6 to 11 years old) to have an unsupervised party in their backyard, and the kids have declared the area a “no adult zone.” Jeff doesn’t know this, so when he goes in the backyard, he’s attacked with food, water balloons and Super Soaker water guns.

Marie and Brad are serving dinner for the adults at a table that’s adjacent to the open kitchen. Jeff notices that Marie and Brad’s son (who’s about 6 or 7 years old) is standing on the kitchen counter and urinating into the sink, right where the plates are that Marie is using to serve dessert. What happens next is very funny and made even more amusing because of the comical expressions on Pudi’s face.

After Jeff, Sarah, Don and Taylor decide they’re going to have a child together, there are scenes that show them discussing how they’re going to deal with certain things when raising the child. They decide that they will tell other friends about this unusual parenting arrangement, but they won’t tell their co-workers, and they’ll use discretion on what to tell family members.

They also agree that the child will know the circumstances under which he or she was conceived. After a tense back-and-forth debate, the two couples agree that the child’s last name will be Penaras-Small, but they can’t quite agree on what the child’s first name will be. They decide to wait until they find out the child’s gender. By the way, all of these discussions and arrangements happen without any attorneys or contracts. No one said this movie was realistic.

Of course, when four people have to make decisions on how to raise the same child, there will be inevitable conflicts. Later in the movie, Sarah tells everyone that any children she has must be raised as vegan, while Bob feels the opposite way because he’s a proud meat eater. And even though the couples agreed early on that the child would be raised as spiritual but not in any specific religion, Bob later says that he wants any of his children to have a baptism ceremony, in order to please Bob’s religious mother.

And then there’s the matter of how the child is going to be conceived. After doing some research, the couples find out that artificial insemination will be too costly and time-consuming for them, so they all decide (somewhat reluctantly) that Sarah will get pregnant with Bob’s sperm the natural way. They all agree that it should take place in a hotel suite, and that Taylor and Jeff will be in an adjacent room (with the door open between the rooms) when it happens, so they won’t feel like it’s infidelity. And there’s an awkward discussion over what kind of sexual position will be acceptable to everyone.

Somehow, no one really discusses what they would want to do if Sarah doesn’t get pregnant the first time that she and Bob have sex with each other. It’s certainly not brought up when the two couples gather for group appointments with their chosen obstetrician Dr. Palmer (played by Brian Thomas Smith) or when Jeff meets with his understanding therapist Dr. Cooper (played by Mark Feuerstein) and discusses the entire process. Dr. Cooper’s office is where Jeff has some fantasy sequences (good and bad) about how things will turn out.

When it’s time for the hoped-for impregnation, the sex scene goes on for too long, for reasons that are shown in the movie. It’s one of the funnier parts of “Babysplitters,” and it showcases the comedic talents of all the actors. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie goes downhill quickly after that scene, with some ridiculously bad plot twists. One of the plot twists ends up becoming completely unnecessary.

Although the movie is about two couples, Jeff and Sarah are the main couple whose perspectives are shown, and their family-planning issues are what started this arrangement. Pudi does a very good job at playing the conflicted and often-immature Jeff, but Chang is the standout for her believable and completely natural-looking performance, even when the movie turns into a steaming pile of absurd junk.

Writer/director Friedlander definitely has a knack for filming comedic scenes. But the movie becomes a complete mess because the screenplay has an over-eagerness to have too many implausible, not-very-funny things happening, just to create more contrived comedy. The movie would have been much better without the plot twists.

“Babysplitters” is the equivalent of a false positive on a pregnancy test: It gives the wrong impression that a certain experience is going to happen, when in reality, the results end up being one big mistake.

Gravitas Ventures released “Babysplitters” on digital and VOD on July 24, 2020.