Oh, Mother

On its surface, The Daytrippers probably seems like your generic '90s American independent let's-get-our-friends-together-and-make-a-movie movie. Shot in Long Island and Manhattan in 16 days for about a half-million dollars, with a cast including the inevitable Parker Posey and the almost equally inevitable Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott--where was Eric Stoltz?--it features a lot of people mouthing off to each other. And it takes place in a single day--just in case you forgot you were watching an allegory.

So the big surprise is that The Daytrippers, a first feature by 32-year-old Gregg Mottola, is often fresh. At its best, it's like a homegrown equivalent of the small-scale, quietly observed Czech films from the '60s. Mottola has a fine, accepting sense of the messiness of workaday people's lives. As the movie bops along, those lives get messier and more unresolved, and that feels right. More than that, it feels just. Mottola honors his people by giving their confusions their due.

The characters in The Daytrippers are finding out about their predicaments as they go along. Mottola, who directed award-winning shorts as a film student at Columbia University, is finding out about the medium as he goes along. (What good filmmaker doesn't?) He retains more than a few of the flossier attitudes of American independent pap, but there's an openness to experience in what he does and, in his film's final sequence, an impassioned richness.

For reasons I can't quite fathom, The Daytrippers almost didn't get theatrical distribution in this country. Completed more than two years ago, it went begging for a buyer until Cinepix picked it up. The vaunted Miramax, which has released markedly inferior stuff in the same realm, didn't bite. Sundance, which gives awards to markedly inferior stuff such as Welcome to the Dollhouse, refused it. (Instead, it was the Grand Jury prize winner at Slamdance '96!) The film isn't especially difficult; it's funny, sometimes explosively so, and it has some first-rate acting. So why the cold shoulder?

The comic idea behind The Daytrippers is that dysfunctional families are the only kind of families. Dysfunction is the norm; everything else is an illusion. And it's also an illusion that families can heal you. Maybe they can, but what they do best is drive you bonkers.

Mottola captures the familiar craziness of a clan--the loudmouthed Rita (Anne Meara); her hunched, intimidated husband, Jim Malone (Pat McNamara); and their cowed, wised-up daughters, Eliza (Hope Davis) and Jo (Posey). We first see Eliza and her husband, Louis (Tucci), driving home from a family Thanksgiving dinner in Long Island. They have an easygoing sensuality together; when they arrive home and go right between the sheets, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

But we're being set up: Next day while he's at work, Hope finds what she thinks is a crumpled mash note to Louis--a love poem by Andrew Marvell, no less--and she does what for her is the logical thing. She runs her fears by her family.

Rita is a rowdy, direct-action matriarch, and she leads the hunt for the "truth." Packed into the beat-up family station wagon, the Malones, along with Jo's boyfriend, Carl (Liev Schreiber), show up at the Manhattan publishing firm where Louis works. Missing him there, they move on to Louis' likely trysting site in Soho, then, after a wild-goose chase, to a book-signing party. As the evidence mounts about Louis' affair, the Malones, already frayed, start to unravel.

Mottola likes the idea that as the day deepens, everybody comes up against their worst fears. Eliza confronts the baselessness of her marriage; Jo is seduced by a high-toned novelist (Scott) and backs away from Carl; Rita's hold on her daughters and her husband is fractured. Her manic highs, which at first seemed so loopy, become nightmarish.

That's a lot of ground to cover, and Mottola leaves too many tire tracks. The search for Louis and his lover is too transparently an "odyssey." The characters' turmoils seem hurried up for our benefit, as if we might lose interest in them otherwise.

With one exception--Carl--Mottola needn't have worried. His actors have the gift of appearing at the same time convivial and isolated, which is a perfect combo for this film. Crammed into the family car with its broken heater, they create their own heat. Mottola turns togetherness into a sick joke--it sounds good, but it's suffocating.

Coming up for air, the daughters go at life in different ways: Jo, the younger, is quicksilver and a touch bratty, while Eliza is almost serenely withdrawn. But they know what they're up against--with Rita, with Louis, with Carl. As often happens with siblings, the comic misery of their predicament bonds them.

Are the Malones believable? It's difficult at first to reconcile Jo and especially Eliza with their plebeian parents. But real families sometimes are like that. I've known clans with parents who talked like truck drivers and children who--in self- defense?--behaved like little patricians. The Malones' crazy-quilt temperaments are probably closer to the truth of American families than most of what we see in the movies.

Mottola plays with class attitudes in The Daytrippers, and at times he seems to be playing the little patrician himself. He's torn between the prole energy of Rita and the Vassar-ish golden-girl manners of Eliza. Emotionally he seems closer to Eliza, but he's not entirely comfortable with that. And so to work off his guilt he creates a straw man: Carl, who works in the construction business but knows who Andrew Marvell is and thinks America would be much better off under an aristocracy. Carl bores everybody but Rita to death talking about his novel in progress, "an allegory about survival in the contemporary world" featuring a man with a dog's head. ("It's Dr. Seuss for adults," Jo chimes in.) Carl is pathetic and in pain, and he even has our sympathy, but it's hard for us to believe in him. He's all too obviously Mottola's own worst-possible-case mouthpiece.

Nobody would accuse Mottola of mother worship. Compared to Anne Meara's Rita, Lauren Bacall in The Mirror Has Two Faces and Debbie Reynolds in Mother are puff pastries. You can admire the way Rita plunges in after things, and she has an unerring radar for bad news, but there's nothing lovable or yielding about her. Meara doesn't wink at us or soften Rita's abrasiveness. It's wonderful for a change to see this actress in the center of a movie instead of on its fringes. She has a genius for being simultaneously indulgent and backhanded--which is perfect for Rita--and her smile here is etched so deeply into her face it's like a gash. Rita's smile is indistinguishable from a sneer--she wants everybody to know she's no fool.

Mottola is at his best in the film's most screw-loose sequence, in which the entire clan is taken into a stranger's apartment after Rita faints in the street. The apartment belongs to a college student (Andy Brown) who is sheltering his fugitive father (Paul Herman) from the alimony police. (Only Eliza is hip to the situation.) What starts out as a wary confab turns into a party, with Rita cooking up some soup. Dysfunction cancels out dysfunction.

Wherever we go in this movie, we find little cubicles of family weirdness. When, later on, Eliza walks in on two aged sisters bickering over their late mother's possessions, it's like the flipside of the father-son scene. One of the sisters tells Eliza she doesn't have to love her own sibling just because they're related. The Daytrippers unties blood ties. It's a comedy about the way family hooks you up with people you would never have anything to do with otherwise.

Without Hope Davis in the cast, the film might seem too frenetic, in the manner of a smarty-pants sitcom. Even with her there's often a punchiness about the jokes and the situations that suggests Mottola doesn't entirely trust the audience to find its own way into the story. Mottola's generosity as a film artist comes not in playing down to us but in playing up.

Davis brings out that generosity. Almost every one of her scenes has a stillness that unfrazzles the movie and gives it some emotional resonance. Whether Eliza is just sitting on a park bench grousing with Jo or having a tentative reassuring exchange with her father on the sidewalk, she radiates a melancholy spunk. She has more to lose than anybody else in the movie, yet she's the most philosophic about her predicament. Davis has mostly been seen in brief supporting roles--she was the French airline ticket agent in Home Alone, and Nicolas Cage bench-pressed her in Kiss of Death--but she has the makings of a major actress. She holds the screen by bringing us into a communion with her character--at any moment we get a deep, clear view of what Eliza is going through.

This quality pays off in the big final sequence, when Eliza confronts Louis. Until this point the film has been noodling in and out of seriousness, but now Mottola releases the throttle. He knows how good Davis and Tucci can be, and he lets them go at each other while we sit back open-mouthed. It's a lacerating scene because it breaks the bounds of the movie, and yet it's the moment we've been prepared for all along. This is Tucci's only extended scene, and he gives it everything he has; it may be the best burst of acting he has ever done. The Daytrippers starts out poky and convivial, but by the end it leaves you shaken.

The Daytrippers.
Hope Davis, Parker Posey, Anne Meara, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci. Written and directed by Gregg Mottola. Opens Friday.


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