Writer-director Hal Salwen may be only now releasing his feature-film debut Denise Calls Up, but he is no neophyte to filmmaking. The New York University Film School graduate worked for years on spec as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and it was during these uncertain, lean, lonely years that Salwen conceived of the first movie he'd helm himself--a study of the isolation that a demanding career can impose on the individual. Specifically, he was concerned with the kind of isolation peculiar to our age of ubiquitous electronic communication.
Salwen talks of the detached quality of his relationships during that period of his life. Many friendships and professional associations were maintained via phone, modem, and fax, and for three years, Salwen shared the vast majority of his time with a computer screen. He woke up one day and realized his own imagination had stepped in to take up the slack left by relationships composed largely of voices and the written word. He had, in effect, been simulating companionship using the raw materials of the communication age.
His fitful debut comedy Denise Calls Up has the quality of an exorcism. Rowdy and inspired one moment, trite and repetitious the next, in its strongest sequences this barbed study of the travails of six 30ish professionals sounds a soulful death knell for intimacy. Anybody with a career that's plugged into the information revolution will find comic flashes of painful recognition in Salwen's sardonic vision of adulthood as a series of important messages on voice mail.
Trouble is, Salwen has chosen a feature-film format to express what would've been far more effective as a short. Denise Calls Up idles down a narrative blind alley long after it has run out of gas. While clever, the silent finale will make you feel like you've sat through an extremely long joke for a mildly amusing punch line.
The inconsistent quality of Denise Calls Up is reflected in its structure, which is audacious but problematic. Salwen has created a 90-minute comedy composed almost entirely of intercut static shots of the actors. Until the end of the film, no two performers share a single frame. This is because the relationships among these very busy young adults are conducted exclusively as a series of telephone calls.
Frank (Tim Daly of TV's Wings) and Gale (Dana Wheeler Nicholson) are ex-lovers who perpetually drift toward each other but never achieve reunion. She wants to set up her female best friend, Barbara (Caroleen Feeney), with his male best friend, Jerry (Liev Schreiber), who, in turn, needs constant encouragement from a best buddy, Martin (Dan Gunther), who knows the others only as acquaintances. There is much anxiety and anticipation on all sides, but a glaring dearth of physical contact.
The film trots briskly out of the gate as a knowing portrait of mating rituals. The exquisite agony of waiting for a phone call from someone you like, not to mention the awkward personal explorations when that phone call finally happens, is captured with a poignant detail reminiscent of the Dorothy Parker story The Telephone Call.
There are motifs, both visual and verbal, that decorate the conversations in this movie. Virtually every frame contains either a telephone, a computer, or a fax machine, and many feature all three. The characters are always interrupting each other in the middle of work, whether at home or office. Their professions are never named, but the words used to describe their current career situations--"flooded," "inundated," "discombobulated"--are variations on one theme. The phone talk is broken by morose sequences that depict the empty promises the characters constantly make to get together.
Then a total stranger (Alanna Ubach), the Denise of the film's title, enters the aimless bustle of their lives. She announces she is eight months' pregnant from the sperm sample Martin donated to a fertility clinic. Martin is wrenched away from his laptop to experience the joys and terrors of fatherhood secondhand. Denise is temperamental, impulsive, and rather theatrical (her favorite name, should the child turn out to be a girl, is "Aphrodite"), but the relative anonymity of their exchanges smooths over potential personality conflicts.
Ultimately, Denise Calls Up feels inflated. An hour into the film, you have witnessed so many profound life experiences conducted via telephone receiver that the surprise changes of tone thrown at you by Salwen feel forced. The death screams of a car-accident victim caught on an answering-machine tape delivers a macabre jolt, but the birth of Denise's child via conference call with all the characters drones on well past its effectiveness. Need I mention that the cinematically tedious topic of phone sex rears its one-dimensional head?
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A vivid lesson can be drawn when you compare this film with a short also produced in 1994 that addressed very similar issues. Writer-director Tom Gilroy's Touch Base runs about 75 minutes shorter than Denise Calls Up and uses one actor (Lili Taylor). As much a tour-de-force monologue for Taylor as anything else, the film nonetheless paints a sinister portrait of the professional world using the most mundane of methods--an introduction on a voice-mail message.
This is what Taylor's character, a cocky junior executive approaching a do-or-die presentation, hears each time she calls her project partner. The cheery recorded greeting has replaced the real woman, who may have been fired...or worse. Touch Base is a modest statement about the electronic walls humans have built between each other, but it employs a universal anxiety--job security--to relay its message forcefully.
Denise Calls Up, on the other hand, strikes the same note of irony so often your ears begin to ring. The film never rises above the novelty of its execution. Hal Salwen has located a troublesome malady of our millennial age, but he lacks the technical and imaginative vocabulary to raise his comic material to its logical, tragic conclusion. Just as the six principal players in the film exist for each other as a series of electronically filtered impressions, so too does Denise Calls Up glance off your brain and leave barely a dent in its aftermath. In his scattershot comic observations, Salwen pursues the profound but bags the merely pleasant.
Denise Calls Up. Sony Pictures Classics. Tim Daly, Caroleen Feeney, Liv Schreiber. Written and directed by Hal Salwen. Opens June 7.