By Sheila O'Malley
[The Favor opens today at Manhattan's Quad Cinema. Click here and scroll down for screening details.]
I once took an acting workshop with John Strasberg, son of acting teacher Lee Strasberg, and he said something that made a huge and long-lasting impact on me: "Boredom is very important in life. It helps you feel when something is wrong."
I have often thought of his comment when watching a film or a play or reading a book and I find myself getting bored. I have guilt about being bored. I think I need to pay more attention. I feel I am not giving the work of art its due. But John Strasberg's words revealed something to me: Boredom in and of itself is a response, and it shouldn't be discounted out of hand. And so I try to ask myself: Okay, I'm bored. Something's wrong. What is it?
I was tremendously bored when watching The Favor, written and directed by Eva Aridjis; it didn't engage my attention in the slightest. I felt a little bit bad about that, because I wanted to like it, and I could tell its heart was in the right place. But I cannot judge a film on its earnest good intentions; I can only say that the story itself did not engage me. There was something missing. It has no life to it. The music is embarrassingly on-the-nose, the exposition is clunky, and some of the plot elements are so overt, I rolled my eyes. It feels amateurish, frankly, despite the fact that there is some really nice acting going on.
Frank Wood plays Lawrence—a lonely guy who lives with his dog in Bayonne, New Jersey—whose great lost love is his high school girlfriend. Frank Wood won a 1999 Tony Award for his performance in Side Man and was most recently seen in Michael Clayton. He's got a great face, a face made for the movies. Whatever goes on there is subtle, and you never catch this guy really acting. No. He's behaving, listening, talking, he seems alive. Lawrence lives a quiet life, he sits on the couch with his dog at night, watching television, eating his dinner off a plate on his lap. He works at the local police station, taking mug shot photos, and he has a side job as a pet photographer. His life is sketched in broad strokes; we don't need to know much, and Frank Wood's quiet soft-eyed face fills in the rest of it for us. He's not a bitter man, he's perhaps resigned to his lot in life, and love doesn't seem to be in the cards for him at all. But then suddenly, his old high-school girlfriend, now a bodacious, lip-glossed woman (who seems more like an actress than a human being), moves back to Bayonne, teenage son in tow, to take care of her father who has had a stroke. She reaches out to Lawrence and they go out to dinner. The dinner scene is early on in the action, and it was at about that time that I felt the familiar sinking feeling. The: "Oh. This isn't very good" feeling.
The entire film depends upon the fact that Lawrence's loyalty to his old high school flame is so great that he would do her this enormous "favor", a favor which makes no realistic sense on the face of it. But nothing is going on between them at that table. And it isn't just that they are awkward middle-aged people, confronting their teenage selves, which would have been interesting to watch. This isn't a scene. It is an opportunity for awkwardly expressed exposition. And so I didn't invest, even though I could feel that I was supposed to. (To give credit where credit is due, at one point, in the middle of the small talk, there is a pause, and Lawrence, who appears to be just glancing down at his plate, looks up and says, calmly, quietly, "You really hurt me, Caroline." Frank Wood plays that moment absolutely beautifully. A line like that needs to be underplayed, or it could verge on the melodramatic ... but he takes a gentle and honest approach, and he doesn't hit a wrong note, which is something!) Caroline's son, a rebellious, almost pre-verbal teenager named Johnny (played by Ryan Donowho with an cliched Holden-Caulfield-meets-Kurt-Cobain intensity), comes into the picture, and, through various plot twists and turns which I won't go into, Johnny comes to live with Lawrence.
And so here we find ourselves in what I would call an ABC After School Special environment: a phony set-up, with conflicts being thrown at the two main characters left and right, willy-nilly, in order to up the ante. Now, in my youth, I was a huge and passionate fan of ABC After School Specials, and remember many of them (and Lance Kerwin's performances, in particular) vividly. They would feature issues of the day, kids being bullied, cheating on a test, peer pressure. The Favor has all of these elements as well, but there is far too much reliance on cliche, and I got frustrated with it. For example, the drug dealer wears a tie-dye shirt, has long lanky hair, and says stuff in a drawling voice like, "Hey, man, you want some weed?" Maybe all of that might not matter if the plot itself wasn't so, well, bossy. I hate bossy plots that continuously shout at the characters, "Okay! Scene over! Now we're going to go THIS way. Follow me! Turn right! Make a sharp right! Now left! Now turn right! Gotcha! Whaddya think of THAT?" I wanted to say to the script, "Just chill out a bit. Don't worry about making too much happen. You don't need it."
And you don't. Not in a film like The Favor which depends on the chemistry between its two leads—and there is plenty there to go on. Lawrence is not accustomed to sharing his life with anyone, but he wants to give Johnny a good home, and wants to be there for him. Johnny is incapable of showing gratitude, and he keeps making stupid choices in his life, and resents any interference from Lawrence, a guy who isn't even his father. So there are nice awkward scenes between the two characters, with yawning pauses, and stilted smalltalk, with Lawrence trying to assert his authority as well as being supportive... and Johnny being baffled as to why anyone would be nice to him in the first place. My point here is: the film's essential story (not its plot, but its story) is delicate and character-driven. The story is how Lawrence and Johnny come to an understanding, and grow to love and trust each other. It doesn't need a big heavy plot. The set-up is enough.
Much about The Favor is right on: the atmosphere and look of Bayonne (it's a place I know well), the way high school boys act around girls they like, how Lawrence reaches out to pet his dog absent-mindedly while watching television, waiting for Johnny to come home. These are good details. But there is either a lack of trust in the script, or too much trust, I'm not sure which. Aridjis wrote the film as well as directed it, so perhaps she is too close to the material to address the flaws, or even see them. And so we are left with a film that makes its points, hits its marks, has its big emotional scenes, but is strangely devoid of anything resembling real life. Too bad, because Frank Wood deserves better.
House contributor Sheila O'Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.