As a film about suburban dysfunction and as a coming-of-age story, Lymelife is not necessarily any worse than the myriad of other entries in these genres. Well, all right, maybe a little, but the question remains: After so many Ice Storms and American Beautys what further insights could the present offering hope to add? That the ‘burbs can be stultifying or even drive a person to madness, that the nuclear family is often the root of unhappiness, that the first fumblings of sexual romance can prove more than a little bit awkward? All of these tropes are prominent in director Derick Martini’s screen debut, but while their presentation doesn’t necessarily ring false (the screenplay, written by Martini and his brother Steven is, after all, based on their own high school experiences), it certainly doesn’t go any way toward enriching our understanding of such frequently mined territory.
Set in Long Island in 1979, Lymelife centers around the nouveau bourgeois Bartletts: father Mickey (Alec Baldwin, in trademark cad mode), an ambitious real estate developer with a yen for women and a cavalier attitude toward his family; wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy), an anger-repressing matriarch who still clings to a tenuous faith in the familial ideal; older son Jimmy (Kieran Culkin), an army volunteer about to be deployed to the Falkland Islands; and 15-year-old Scott (Rory Culkin), the film’s mop-haired central character. Our young hero spends his time in typical adolescent fashion, warding off bullies and pining for the girl-next-door, while dealing with the impending demise of his parents’ marriage. The object of his affection, Adrianna (Emma Roberts), a 16-year old beauty who claims she only dates older guys, but shows a passing interest in Scott, allows the filmmakers to introduce a parallel familial situation by switching attention to the girl’s parents, a downward bound counterpart to the Bartletts’s upward mobility. While Adrianna’s mother embarks on an affair with Mickey, her father spends his days cowering in the basement on the verge of madness after being infected with Lyme disease (the affliction serving as a rather obvious metaphor for the corrosive influence of suburbia), but still remains capable of dispensing sage advice when called upon by the screenplay.
Lymelife loads its thin running time with enough content for a film twice its length, but to the filmmakers’ credit, they do make at least a nominal effort at infusing each character with hints of motivational ambiguity even if this character development proceeds with varying degrees of success. However, Martini’s other attempts to elevate his largely stock material, whether through aesthetic flourishes or poorly conceived attempts at humor, prove to be singularly misguided. The director has an irritating habit of cutting away from the action to give us quick montages of typically “suburban” paraphernalia such as Scott’s toy soldiers or Mickey’s showroom models of generic tract housing (another obvious metaphor) that add to, rather than transcend, the clichés of suburbia. His framing and cutting proceeds in typical shot-reverse shot fashion, but often with the angles a note askew, as if to imply that things aren’t quite right in the seemingly picture-perfect surroundings. Unfortunately, the effect is of an amateurish experimentation that, along with Martini’s excessive jump cutting, suggests that it’s the filmmaker and not the world he’s created that’s slightly off.
Martini’s efforts at bringing humor to a surprisingly humorless affair prove similarly ineffective. The director’s favorite comedic device is the double entendre, but he lacks the imagination to pull it off, and the film falls spectacularly flat in a failed comic payoff that turns on Scott’s two simultaneously achieved symbolic entries into manhood (confirmation, losing his virginity) and the audience’s inability to tell to which of the two his mother is referring. But even if Martini was blessed with a gift for comedy, even if his aesthetic experiments paid off, even if he had succeeded in devising a fresh set of dramatic situations, it would still take a filmmaker of far greater vision to bring renewed relevance to such an overworked cinematic terrain. A question of diminishing returns, the suburban dysfunction picture sinks further into insignificance with each subsequent iteration and the wholly dispensable Lymelife‘s only real function is to confirm this shameful decline.