Review: ‘The Sunlit Night,’ starring Jenny Slate

July 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jenny Slate in “The Sunlit Night” (Photo by Eirik Evjen/Quiver Distribution)

“The Sunlit Night”

Directed by David Wnendt

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway and New York, the comedy/drama “The Sunlit Night” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A female struggling painter artist from New York City takes a job as an apprentice to a grouchy and famous male painter artist, who lives as a recluse in Norway.

Culture Audience: “The Sunlit Night” will appeal primarily to people who like independent films that have plenty of quirky characters but not much substance.

A scene from “The Sunlit Night,” with (in front row) Gillian Anderson (third from left), Alex Sharp (third from right), Zach Galifianakis (second from right) and Jenny Slate (far right). (Photo by Eirik Evjen/Quiver Distribution)

When it comes to live-action comedy/dramas or “dramedies” that Jenny Slate stars in, it’s time for her to move on from playing the type of “stuck in a rut” woman who’s still living with her parents or still trying to launch a career, long after most people have already figured out what they want to do with their lives. (See 2017’s “Landline” and 2014’s “Obvious Child,” which is still the best movie that Slate has starred in so far. )

The dreadfully bland comedy/drama “The Sunlit Night,” starring Slate (who is long past her 20s, even though she looks younger than her real age), is yet another independent comedic film where she plays someone who gets a rude awakening that she has to start living her life like a responsible adult. In “The Sunlit Night,” Slate (who is one of the film’s producers) plays the character of Frances “Fran” Cohen, a New York-based painter artist who’s struggling to make a living from her art. German director David Wnendt makes his English-language film debut with “The Sunlit Night.”

In the beginning of the movie, Frances has recently broken up with her boyfriend Robert (played by Dan Puck) whom she’s been comfortably living with in the Hamptons. It’s implied that Robert was taking care of all of Frances’ financial needs, because now that the relationship is over, she’s suddenly found herself broke and homeless.

Frances has to move back in with her parents—Levi (played by David Paymer) and Mirela (played by Jessica Hecht)—at their cramped New York City apartment. She doesn’t share the details with her family about what went wrong in the relationship with Robert (and it’s not mentioned in the movie at all), but Frances’ parents assume that Robert was the one who ended the relationship. That assumption annoys Frances, although she doesn’t correct them.

Frances isn’t just upset about her love life. Her career isn’t going so well either. The opening scene of the film shows three pretentious art critics evaluating one of Frances’ art pieces that’s hanging on a wall, and making it clear that they don’t think the piece is good enough. One of the critics describes Frances’ work “pedestrian,” as she sits uncomfortably in the room, listening to them as they give their negative reviews.

Frances has also recently gotten rejected for an artist residency in Tokyo. “Maybe I’m not an artist,” Frances says in a voiceover. “Maybe I’m just the daughter of two other artists.”

Frances’ mother Mirela (who designs upholstery textiles for well-to-do clients) and father Levi (who’s a medical illustrator) both make their livings as artists,  but they have opposite personalities. Mirela is nurturing and supportive, while Levi is quick-tempered and tactless. Frances’ younger sister Gabriella, nicknamed Gaby (played by Elise Kibler), also lives in the apartment.

One evening, while the family is having dinner together, Gabriella surprises them with the news that she’s gotten engaged. Frances is happy for her sister, but Levi and Mirela aren’t thrilled because they don’t like her fiancé Scott Glenny. (The movie doesn’t go into details over why the parents disapprove of this relationship.) Levi immediately ruins Gabrielle’s big news about her engagement by announcing that he and Mirela are separating and they’re selling the apartment.

Feeling like her life is falling apart (and also desperately needing a new place to live), Frances jumps at the chance to work for a famous but reclusive artist named Nils Auermann (played by Fridtjov Såheim) in the remote Arctic district of Lofoton in Nordland, Norway. It’s only a summer job, and Frances has been warned that Nils can be very demanding and difficult (he fired the previous person who had the job), but Frances takes the opportunity anyway to be Nils’ apprentice.

Nils is painting a yellow mural on a local Viking Museum’s abandoned barn. He’s entered the project into a national arts competition. And he needs someone to help him finish painting the barn. The apprentice who has the job is required to live on Nils’ property.

When Frances arrives at Nils’ place, she immediately sees why he has an unpleasant reputation. He’s a rude and very self-centered taskmaster. And he immediately tells Frances that they will have long work hours (from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), and that she will only be allowed to work on her own art in her own free time.

Frances’ living arrangements are also less-than-ideal: She has to live in a small, messy trailer. A previous tenant has written this message on the trailer cupboards: “Welcome to Hell,” as a warning of what’s to come. Frances not only has to deal with culture shock, but she also has to adjust to Arctic Norway’s environment of the sun never really setting, even at night.

Frances covers and paints over the trailer windows in order to get some sleep. And she has some unexpected company with a young goat that keeps showing up in her trailer. Despite Nils being such a cranky and gruff boss, Frances feels a little bit of kinship with him, because art critics have used the same words to describe Nils’ art and Frances’ art: “lazy, cold, not working.”

In the nearby Viking Village, Frances visits the Viking Museum and meets an eccentric named Haldor (played by Zach Galifianakis, in yet another weirdo role), who’s the museum’s manager and who insists that people call him Chief. Haldor/Chief isn’t from Norway. He’s actually an American from Cincinnati, but he considers himself to be an expert on Norwegian culture and history—so much so, that he’s always dressed in a Viking outfit, and he stars in the museum’s short history videos that are shown in the museum’s visitor screening room. Frances is slightly amused by Haldor/Chief, which is more amused than most people watching this movie will be by this insufferable Viking wannabe character.

Nils has color-coded how the barn should be painted, while Frances says in a voiceover she’s the type of artist who prefers finger paint. Because he is very particular on how he wants the barn to be painted, Nils and Frances inevitably clash. When Nils loses his temper with Frances over how she painted part of the barn (too sloppily, in his opinion), he grabs her arm and yells, “The barn is like a cathedral to me!” Frances immediately defends herself and shouts back, “Don’t touch me ever!”

Frances storms off to get some time away from her aggressive boss. But defending herself from his physical harassment is a turning point in her relationship with Nils, because he now knows that she’s no pushover. Later, he makes a semi-apology to Frances by telling her: “You and I are complete opposites, Frances. I am not used to people … But we complement each other.”

One day, while driving with Nils in his car on a deserted road, Frances sees a solemn-looking man, who’s around her age, wearing a black suit and walking with a suitcase on the road. Frances asks Nils if they can offer the man a ride, but Nils says no.

Frances sees the mysterious suit-clad man again at a local diner. She begins talking to him and tells him that she’s sure that she’s seen him before in New York. And by the way she looks at him, it’s obvious that she’s very attracted to him and interested in getting to know him better. This sad-looking man acts very aloof with her, and he rebuffs her attempts at a friendly conversation.

Frances sees him again later at the Viking Museum. And this time, she finds out who he is and why he’s in Norway. His name is Yasha (played Alex Sharp), and it turns out he really is from New York. Yasha is in Norway because his Russian immigrant father, whom he worked with at his father’s bakery in New York, has died, and Yasha is fulfilling his father’s wish to have a traditional Viking funeral in Norway.

And where is Yasha’s mother? Her name is Olyana, and she stayed in Russia, and never immigrated to the United States, as Yasha and his father had hoped. Yasha is very estranged from his mother, and he hasn’t invited her to the funeral. But that doesn’t stop Olyana (played by Gillian Anderson) from showing up anyway.

The biggest problem with “The Sunlit Night” is that it’s a lot duller than it should be. Galifianakis usually plays goofballs who are supposed to be annoying, but his Haldor/Chief character in this movie has no moments that are truly funny. It’s almost as if he’s there as filler. Anderson does a Russian accent that isn’t very convincing, while the Yasha character is just a grieving shell of a man, so he doesn’t have much of a personality.

The relationship between Frances and Nils, which is supposed to be the center of the story, seems devoid of anything memorable, except for the scene where they have a physical confrontation. There are a few pretentious moments when Frances namechecks some famous fine-art pieces in comparisons to her current life situation, but only art buffs will really appreciate some of these semi-humorous references. And even the “romance” scenes in the movie fall flat.

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight adapted “The Sunlit Night” from her 2015 novel of the same title. The book is based on her own “fish out of water” experiences as a New Yorker living in a remote part of Norway. But what works in a book doesn’t always work in a screenplay, since the pace of “The Sunlit Night” moves as slowly as a glacier moving through the Arctic.

An example of what’s wrong with this movie is how it mishandles a possible friendship between Frances and a bored Coop Prix supermarket worker (played by Luise Nes), whom Frances randomly meets at the supermarket in the frozen-food section. (This supermarket worker says he name is Kay, but she is identified in the film credits only as “Fridge Girl.”) Frances asks this young woman if she would like to pose for a painted portrait for Frances. Fridge Girl says yes, and immediately walks out of her job that day to go with Frances, without telling her boss or co-workers.

The next thing you know, Fridge Girl is posing nude for Frances in Frances’ dumpy trailer. Who does that? The movie never bothers to answer that question, because there’s no insight given into Fridge Girl’s character and why she’s the type of person to just impulsively walk out of a job to go with a stranger to pose for a nude portrait in a dingy trailer in the middle of nowhere.

Although the movie shows that Fridge Girl has posed for multiple nude portrait sessions for Frances, there’s no real inkling of what kind of conversations they might have had outside of those portrait sessions. Viewers don’t get to see the development of a possible friendship between the supermarket worker and Frances. Instead, viewers see more of Fridge Girl’s naked breasts than her personality.

Another thing about the movie that’s a missed opportunity is how little of Norwegian culture it shows, except for over-the-top Viking stereotypes that are played for laughs. Frances doesn’t seem very curious about getting to know other local artists who might live in the area, or even traveling in her free time outside of the stifling atmosphere of working with Nils. (Going to a local diner and a local grocery store doesn’t count.)

Maybe Frances’ lack of interest in exploring more of Norway is an example of how shallow she is or maybe how lazy the screenwriting is in not making the book more interesting for the movie. Conveniently, Frances’ “love interest” just happens to be a fellow New Yorker who’s in Norway. If you were to believe what’s presented in this movie, Norwegian men just aren’t interesting enough for Frances.

And did Frances really mature emotionally from this experience? What happens when her summer apprenticeship with Nils ends? Those questions are answered in the movie, but the conclusion isn’t particularly insightful.

Frances has the type of arrested-development lifestyle that might be somewhat cute when you’re in your 20s. But it’s not cute when you’re way past that age. If people want to see a comedy/drama film about a struggling female artist who recently broke up with her boyfriend, moves back in with her parents in their New York City apartment, and has a younger sister whose life is going more smoothly than hers, then writer/director/actress Lena Dunham already made that a much-better movie with “Tiny Furniture.”

Quiver Distribution released “The Sunlit Night” on digital and VOD on July 17, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Bad Therapy,’ starring Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins

April 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anna Pniowsky, Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry in “Bad Therapy” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Bad Therapy”

Directed by William Teitler

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dark comedy “Bad Therapy” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asian Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged married couple go to a relationship therapist, who’s actually a manipulative, toxic person who tries to break up the couple.

Culture Audience: “Bad Therapy” will appeal mostly to people who like to see movies about troubled marriages or unhinged characters, but the film’s uneven tone and sloppy, predictable screenplay make this movie a disappointing waste of time.

Michaela Watkins in “Bad Therapy” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Bad Therapy” is supposed to be a dark comedy or a comedy/drama or a dramedy, but the movie’s three lead actors have such contradictory styles in their performances that it makes the entire tone of this poorly written film look completely out of whack. Nancy Doyne adapted the “Bad Therapy” screenplay from her novel “Judy Small,” which was the original title of the movie. However, the “Judy Small” book isn’t even listed on Amazon, so it might be difficult for viewers to find out how the movie differs from the book.

Judy Small is the name of the family/relationship therapist who wreaks havoc on the lives of a Los Angeles married couple—real-estate agent Susan Howard (played by Alicia Silverstone) and TV executive Bob Howard (played by Rob Corddry)—who are both in their early 40s and have been married for three years. Living with the couple is Susan’s rebellious 13-year-old daughter Louise (played Anna Pniowsky), who does things like smoke marijuana and defy her school’s dress code. Louise is Susan’s daughter from Susan’s first marriage, which tragically ended when her first husband (who was her college sweetheart) died in a fishing accident. Bob has apparently adopted Louise, since her last name is also Howard.

At the beginning of the story, Susan is feeling restless and discontented in her career and in her marriage. Being a single mother for five years has left her constantly worried about financial security, while Bob is the exact opposite and doesn’t think they need to worry about money. (It’s revealed later in the film that Bob is head of programming at a network called the Nature Channel, where he makes $125,000 a year.)

Bob suggests that they have a biological child together, but Susan doesn’t really like the idea because it would be difficult for her to conceive a child at her age, and she’s feeling uncertain about where the marriage is going. “I want a break from all the drudgery!” she wails at one point in the movie.

There are also indications that Susan is a worrisome control freak. She nags at Bob (who’s not overweight) about what he eats, by warning him that he could have a heart attack. During breakfast, after Susan leaves for work, he throws his bran oatmeal in the garbage disposal and orders a cholesterol-heavy meal over the phone from a local restaurant. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Susan has forbidden Louise from taking public transportation, presumably because she doesn’t think public transportation is safe enough for her 13-year-old daughter.

It’s clear that one of the reasons why their marriage has hit a rough patch is precisely because Bob and Susan are total opposites in their outlooks on life. Susan is someone who’s the type of person who’s very judgmental and likes to have goals and plans (and she tends to get anxious if things don’t go her way), while Bob is more of a “go with the flow” easygoing type of person. In the beginning of the movie, before they begin therapy, Susan also expresses regret that she and Bob didn’t properly discuss the issue of them having a child together. And now, Bob wants Susan to have a child with him, but she doesn’t share that same wish.

One day, Susan has lunch with her close friend Roxy (played by Aisha Tyler), who’s a materialistic and shallow trophy wife to a wealthy business mogul. Roxy tells Susan the happy news that she’s pregnant with triplets after going through fertility treatments. Roxy also mentions that she and her husband have been seeing a relationship therapist. Susan asks Roxy for the name of the therapist, because Susan says that she and Bob might need marriage counseling.

When Susan brings up the idea of marriage counseling to Bob, he is extremely reluctant, but Susan eventually persuades him. “If it will make you happy, we’ll try it,” says Bob. It won’t be long before Susan and Bob regret that decision.

Judy Small works in a small office in a strip mall—the first indication that her practice is not very successful. She starts off the couple’s first session by getting Susan and Bob to talk about themselves and why they think they need counseling. Susan does most of the talking during this first session, while Bob admits to Judy that he really doesn’t want to be there.

Susan tells Judy what her first marriage was like (it was very happy, she says), but her marriage to Bob is on shaky ground: “I want our marriage to be the real thing,” says says of her relationship with Bob. “For some reason, I don’t feel satisfied.” On the other hand, Bob doesn’t think their marriage is in trouble.

Susan actually does too much talking during that first session, because she reveals something that is news to Bob: She’s worried that Bob might start having inappropriate thoughts about Louise, now that Louise has hit puberty age. Susan bases this suspicion on how she thinks Bob has been looking at Louise recently. Bob vehemently denies that he thinks about Louise sexually, and he tells Susan how hurtful it was for her to think he could do something so heinous. Judy suggests that Louise join them in their next therapy session so that she can observe their family dynamics.

However, enough was said in this first session for Judy to see the cracks in the Howards’ marriage and to use those vulnerabilities to her advantage. One of the first clues that Judy might intend to cause trouble is how she openly flirts with Bob in front of Susan, by saying how extremely attractive he is and that he must get a lot of female attention. Of course, Susan misses this big red flag because she tends to be self-absorbed and is the type of person who loves to hear herself complain about her life.

Judy sees even more ways to manipulate the couple when Louise reluctantly joins them for the next session, and Judy sees that Louise resents Susan for being overprotective. And then, Judy’s devious machinations really start to kick into high gear when she suggests (and Susan readily agrees) that she counsel Susan and Bob alone in separate sessions. During these separate sessions, Judy uses information that they tell her to drive a wedge of distrust between Bob and Susan, especially when it comes to a past cheating fling that Bob had while he was dating Susan. (He lets this information slip during a solo session with Judy.)

As the therapy sessions continue, it becomes pretty clear that Judy wants to seduce Bob. And she encourages Susan to have an affair with another man, but Susan completely hates the idea and doesn’t want to do it. Because Bob and Susan have separate sessions with Judy, she’s able to manipulate them into thinking that they’re falling out of love with each other.

“Bad Therapy” has some dialogue and lines that are downright cringeworthy. At one point in the movie, Judy says to Bob: “Trust is like a muscle. Once it’s torn, it’s difficult to repair.”

It should come as no surprise that Judy has a dark past, which is revealed in the movie. There are also people from her past—including someone named Dr. Ed Kingsley (played by David Paymer)—who can threaten to expose Judy and her secrets. What could have been the most suspenseful part of the film is actually handled in a very clunky and unrealistic way.

In addition to the screenplay’s flaws (some of Bob and Susan’s actions make no sense after they see more of Judy’s true colors), the movie’s three main actors deliver performances as if they’re in three different movies.

Silverstone portrays Susan as an over-emoting neurotic who’s in a wacky comedy. (In “Bad Therapy,” she gives Jim Carrey a run for his money with rubber-faced expressions.) It’s by far the most annoying, worst performance in the movie, which is a shame because Silverstone is capable of doing better acting. (Her small but tragically impactful role in the horror film “The Lodge” is a recent example of how she can show good acting talent.)

Corddry is playing Bob as if he’s in straightforward drama, which this movie is most definitely not. Because Bob has cheated on Susan before (prior to their marriage), the movie drops major hints that he’s capable of cheating on Susan again, especially since she’s become a bit of shrew in their marriage. Unfortunately, Corddry (who was such a comedic scene-stealer in “Hot Tub Time Machine”) has almost no sense of humor at all in portraying Bob. It’s too bad that Corddry plays Bob in such a bland, forgettable way because Bob is a character who reacts to things, so the character had great potential for comedic possibilities, but it ended up being a missed opportunity.

As for Watkins, she comes closest to the movie’s intended dark comedy. But the way she portrays the unhinged Judy is as a hollow, not-very-smart villain. Even with some of the terrible dialogue in the movie, there was a way for Watkins to elevate the character’s “femme fatale” appeal, but she didn’t. Instead, Judy just comes across as creepy and weird, when charm and intelligence would be needed for this type of corrupt therapist to fool people.

One of the odd things about “Bad Therapy” is that it spends too much time veering off into subplots that are not necessary to the story. There are several scenes that show what teenage Louise does at school and in her free time that didn’t need to be in the film, except for one scene that takes place on a bus. While on the bus, Louise (defying her mother’s orders not to take public transportation) and her best friend Zooey (played by Paris Bravo) happen to see Judy walking down the street. It’s a scene where Judy shows her demented side.

And there’s another unnecessary subplot involving Bob’s co-worker Reed (played by Haley Joel Osment), who confesses to Bob that he’s had an office fling with someone in the accounting department named Annabelle (played by Sarah Shahi), who left her husband because of the affair, and now she wants to run off with Reed and move to Mexico. Reed, who wants to break up with Annabelle, has a live-in girlfriend who’s eager to get married. Reed has no intentions of breaking up with his live-in girlfriend and moving to Mexico.

Reed tells Bob that he’s afraid that if he ends the relationship with Annabelle in the wrong way, she might accuse him of sexual harassment later to get revenge on him. Bob has no business getting involved, but he does anyway, by volunteering to talk to Annabelle about it. And where does he have this private and sensitive discussion with Annabelle that’s supposed to prevent a possibly messy #MeToo situation? In a bar, where Annabelle promptly puts the moves on Bob.

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal this subplot about Bob’s colleagues Reed and Annabelle, because it really has no bearing on what happens in the rest of the movie, which has one too many filler scenes. And the scenes that are necessary are just substandard and often dull, with awkward performances from the three lead actors. How bad is “Bad Therapy”? It makes Lifetime movies (which are often about troubled romances and crazy/evil women) look like masterpieces.

Gravitas Ventures released “Bad Therapy” on digital and VOD on April 17, 2020.