This Space Between Us (1999)

I wonder if Matthew Leutwyler is bitter about Garden State‘s commercial success. Garden State and This Space Between Us, (released five years earlier) both concern a 29-year-old who almost broke out in Hollywood but was undermined by a past trauma, and must now experience a breakthrough before he can move forward in life. And like Garden State, This Space Between Us relies on whether you care about an average guy’s personal problems.

Both have a remarkably uneven approach to humor, with awkward attempts at sight gags and coarse dialogue, both have a supporting cast of quirky, cutesy characters, and both pivot on the “big moment” when the emotionally frozen guy finally allows the girl of his dreams (though, in this case, she’s dead) to thaw him out. This Space Between Us is more generic and tedious than Garden State. Jeremy Sisto (from HBO’s Six Feet Under) is really the only reason This Space Between Us is bearable. He’s not as annoying as Zach Braff; in fact he’s cute, low-key, and likeable.

Sisto plays small-time director Alex, whose perfect wife suddenly dies right on the cusp of his success. Since then he’s done nothing, and when he finally decides to pitch his new screenplay, he ends up plunging a Mont Blanc pen through a cranky producer’s hand. It’s a violent moment that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film, and it’s not funny. He’s justly demoted in the Hollywood chain, given access only to projects like directing a Punky Brewster reunion. He’s insulted at the suggestion and so disillusioned with his agent that he hits the road for some talky soul-searching that takes up the rest of the film.

For someone still in his 20s with a questionable work ethic, doesn’t having a gig at directing TV sound pretty good? Doesn’t everyone have to start somewhere? Doesn’t building a career take discipline? It’s hard to sympathize with all his pouting, and it hardly seems like a crisis worth making a whole film about. It’s this kind of emotional indulgence that dampened my interest in the independent film boom of the ’90s. This Space Between Us is one of those well-intended but unsubstantial films born of the good idea that a lower-budget film could give directors a chance to focus on stories with fully formed characters and intelligent dialogue. Its representation of young middle class people and the way that they speak is boring and familiar, and its emotional themes are trite.

The film also has some muddy ideas about artists; specifically, the necessity for artists to face themselves honestly before they can make good work. A conversation with his friend at the Museum of Modern Art, in which she tries to get him to appreciate contemporary installation art (giving a bad misreading of a Felix-Gonzalez Torres piece, by the way), seems to implicate his unresolved grief in his inability to make good films, though I’m not sure how. There are a lot of conversations like this one — broad strokes of philosophy that are there to create atmosphere more than to leave us with anything specific to think about. The characters he meets are also general sketches: soulful French artist Zoe, bitter and marriage-desparate Arden, flaky socialite Paternelle, and pothead high school buddy Jesse (we need a moratorium on pot-head sidekicks). I get who they are supposed to be, just not why I’m supposed to care.

This Space Between Us aims pretty low, and still misses the mark. We’ve seen the road trip through one’s past to find out what it all means much more successfully in movies like Broken Flowers. If you like Jeremy Sisto, it could be mildly entertaining, otherwise it’s not really worth the time.

DVD features include Commentary by writer / director Matthew Leutwyler and actor Erik Palladino, Outtakes.

RATING 5 / 10