[4 May 2010]
Writing is an egotistical exercise. At the heart of it is the belief that you have something worth saying, and that the people who read your words will be better off for having read them. Writing is also a search for approval, it screams, “Hey, look at me!” and it also involves a lot of fragile egos that need constant reassurance.
The Blue Tooth Virgin is a film that attempts to examine the root causes behind why people write. At least it aspires to. More than an exploration of why people put proverbial pen to paper, more than dealing with the question of why people write and the underlying psychological issues inherent in writing, this movie deals with what to do when a friend asks you to read his crappy screenplay.
If The Blue Tooth Virgin is to be believed, there are only two possible courses of action when your buddy hands you a manuscript. One, you can lie and say it’s great. Sure, your writer pal will feel good, gain all sorts of confidence, and head out into the harsh world of movie production bolstered and full of gumption, but it won’t help his script any. In the end some ruthless studio executive who doesn’t care about his feelings will most likely eviscerate his metaphorical baby in front of him. You could have prevented this needless carnage.
The second way to handle this is to be brutally honest. Tell him his screenplay sucks, that it is confusing, that the story is convoluted, that the characters don’t work, and that he should put it in a boat, light it on fire, and send it out to sea Viking funeral style. That path might scar him for life, crush his dreams, and lead to binge drinking. Also, it probably won’t help his screenplay, either.
In the world of The Blue Tooth Virgin these seem to be the only two options. Within this reality there is no way to be both critical and constructive at the same time. You can’t find a way to talk about what works well, and what still needs improvement. I realize that such a black and white approach lends itself more easily to conflict, which a movie needs, but this script completely ignores the wide array of grays that exist between the poles. In the real world there are many ways to give advice without being a dick about it. Sometimes it is tricky, but it is indeed possible.
This is the situation that David (Bryce Johnson), a successful magazine editor, finds himself in. His friend Sam (Austin Peck) is a struggling screen writer, who just finished a new project that he is excited about. The problem is, the script is awful, and David has to be the one to tell him, since no one else will. He is the one that is unable to find the middle ground between praise and condemnation.
There is another problem. Sam isn’t looking for honest criticism. He is whiney, obnoxious, and conceited, and is only fishing for praise. All he wants is for someone to tell him he’s great and stroke his ego. He essentially tells David what he wants to hear, and when David comes back with the opposite, a rift opens in their relationship.
When they are not together, the movie bounces back and forth between David and Sam’s perspectives. David is the more interesting of the two, and is nuanced and well rounded as a character, not to mention, he is far more relatable than his counterpart. Sam on the other hand is a one trick pony. He has a single note, the real writer, the authentic artist that no one understands, and he plays it to death. His false superiority pushes you away, and drains any possible sympathy you might feel for him. Eventually you’ll want to slap him silly. Bouncing back and forth between the two, the narrative never settles on one story or the other, and in the end, it doesn’t belong to anyone.
There are enormous gaps in the respective stories. David meets with his therapist, and Sam meets with Zena (Karen Black), a wonderfully loopy, new-age script consultant who serves the role of Sam’s de facto therapist. At the end of these respective scenes, the characters are right at the cusp of major, life-changing moments of decision, and you don’t see any of it. Instead, there is a scene at the end where the two estranged friends meet, and tell each other, and the audience, about these momentous moments of change.
There is more than enough time within the movie to deal with this action. The DVD box lists the run time at 85 minutes, but the final fade out comes at 78 minutes, and that includes the lengthy, animated opening credits sequence. Granted, the entire movie was shot in eight days, which is an impressive feat, but it feels like writer/director Russell Brown cheated. I won’t say what it is, but the very last moment is so completely contrived that it will leave a bad taste in your mouth.
For the most part the acting in The Blue Tooth Virgin is excellent. It’s fun to watch Bryce Johnson as David try to mirror Sam’s enthusiasm, even though he doesn’t feel it. He is subtle and you can see the difference between his words and thoughts. Lauren Stamile is solid as Sam’s long suffering wife Rebecca, and the best humor of the movie comes from Tom Gilroy as Louis, David’s jaded neighbor.
Initially the scene with Karen Black bothered me, but as it progressed, as she came to dominate the scene, I got sucked in. hat was when I realized it had nothing to do with her. Her performance and character are great.
Austin Peck as Sam is the weak link in the cast. His actions are self-conscious and too overwrought to come across as real. Every little movement is overdramatized. While watching the movie I kept being reminded of soap operas, and sure enough, Peck comes from a soap opera background. (As the World Turns and Days of Our Lives.) You can get away with his exaggerated, melodramatic style when everyone around you is doing the same thing, but he sticks out like a sore thumb amidst this collection of delicate, naturalistic performances.
The DVD release includes the movie trailer, and an interview with Russell Brown, and Curtiss Clayton, moderated by Caveh Zahedi (who made a short film about taking mushrooms with Will Oldham). In the interview they pretty much just discuss their personal philosophies when it comes to giving people feedback. There is also a commentary track with Brown, Bryce Johnson, Karen Black, and editor Christopher Munch (there is a misprint on the box that lists Curtiss Clayton, the other editor, but it is actually Munch that appears on the commentary). It feels like Karen Black is moderating their discussion. She keeps the dialogue moving, asking questions when it stalls. Also, she has the most interesting things to say, which is too bad, because due to fluctuating sound quality, her voice is often indecipherable.
The Blue Tooth Virgin isn’t a bad movie, it is just wildly mediocre. “Unexceptional” feels like the right word. It wants to be something deeper than it is. It wants to be a treatise on creative expression, the drive behind it, and the pitfall it entails, but the film relies on characters tossing about endless writing clichés, and standard jabs about Hollywood not wanting real characters, and winds up being about whether to be honest or blunt with your friends.
Finally, the jaunty piano score gets fingers-on-a-chalkboard annoying within 15-minutes. Be warned.