Thursday, 1 July 2010

Tick, tick, tick...: "Lymelife"

"The American Dream Sucks," runs the tagline for Lymelife, and - after The Ice Storm, American Beauty, Imaginary Heroes, The Chumscrubber and countless other copycats attempting to expose the white-picket fence as innately rotten - you might legitimately think: well, do we really need to be told this in a movie theatre anymore? To give him his due, writer-director Derick Martini carves out a niche for himself through his setting (America, the late 70s: before the prosperity of the Reagan years had had the chance to trickle down to his middle-class white supporters) and location: not, this time, a typical suburb, but an affordable housing development in Long Island, on the edge of a patch of woodland that has left the locals susceptible to (and shit-scared of) Lyme disease, the infection transmissible from deers to humans via ticks. Taping up their trouser legs in one notionally happy household are aspirant developer father Alec Baldwin, his wife Jill Hennessy, their youngest son Rory Culkin and - passing through on army leave - his elder brother Kieran Culkin. Next door are perky housewife Cynthia Nixon, her oddball hubby Timothy Hutton - who's been using one form of bug (surveillance equipment) to track the progress of another (the undiagnosed MS/syphilis/Lyme disease that's left him with a bad case of the sweats) through the vicinity - and their blossoming daughter Emma Roberts, upon whom the younger Culkin has developed a serious crush.

Though it borrows the latter actor from The Chumscrubber (and the elder Culkin from the not dissimilar Igby Goes Down), the film's closest suburban-hell model is Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. Within a rural setting - another spoiled paradise - we again observe that the wholesome family values being imposed from the top down by a particular administration are founded on a lie; that while the philandering parents install themselves in the basement to exchange partners and fluids with abandon, their sons and daughters, left to their own devices, will be out on the front porch, taking hits on a joint. In a film where some of the actors are perhaps too well established as personalities to entirely convince in anonymous roles (Baldwin and Nixon, in particular; Hutton, too, feels like meta-casting designed to invoke the spirit of Ordinary People), Roberts - taking intriguing steps to shed her Nancy Drew image - and the two Culkins share the freshest-seeming scenes, though even they sometimes appear to be operating in the shadow of Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd's superior work in the Lee film.

Where Lymelife scores over that film's many imitators, though, is in moving beyond new-bohemian sneering to develop a strain of social comment: the idea is that in the rush to get rich - the throwing up of these houses on cheap, disease-ridden land - lives have been placed in mortal danger. It's a mounting sickness - not your standard consumerism-induced impassivity - which defines these characters: the beads of perspiration breaking out on Hutton's brow and Baldwin's upper lip, Culkin jr.'s dash to the toilet upon learning the extent of his father's hypocrisy. It inevitably has to come back to strained kitchen-sink conversations, awkward adolescent sex and poor, defenceless inanimate objects being knocked off the dinner table in explosions of long-suppressed rage, but Martini is at least trying to find new angles on this most familiar of modern Western sob stories: we never knew we had it so bad.

Lymelife opens at selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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