Jeff Lipsky’s films take place in an alternate universe of human behavior. Unapologetically talky, works such as Twelve Thirty stylize their character’s endless discourses into streams of dialogue that aim not to capture the believable flow of real-life conversation, but to induce a sense of heightened theatricality. In Lipsky’s hands, though, this blatant artifice often makes his characters and their concerns seem too distanced from any recognizable grounding in the quotidian, without the compensating sense of getting at some kind of deeper truths about humanity’s struggles and contradictions.
The director’s latest chamber piece, Molly’s Theory of Relativity, isn’t much different, beginning with a long-gestating showdown between a father, Asher (Reed Birney), and his late-twentysomething son, Zak (Lawrence Michael Levine), in the latter’s apartment. While Asher defends himself against his son’s charges of financial and familial irresponsibility, Zak’s wife, Molly (Levine’s real-life spouse Sophia Takal), interjects to vent her own rage on her father-in-law, pushing him repeatedly. This opening sequence sets the pattern for things to come, a self-contained interaction in which the reasons for the tensions between the characters are clearly laid out, but the unfolding of these tensions lack the expected frisson, probably because the characters never sound like they’re actually talking to one another, but rather delivering Lipsky’s echo-chamber monologues.
Set during Halloween and almost entirely in Zak and Molly’s Queens apartment, the film charts a farewell evening for the young couple as they prepare to leave for Norway to start a new life. Molly, an astrophysicist, has been laid off for a year and Zak is working two minimum-wage jobs to support them. As the night wears on, the party is joined by a variety of family members and neighbors, each with their own stories and hang-ups—as well as a few ghosts of dead relatives who appear as corporeal beings and whose supernatural states take a while to discern. Along the way, Zak and Molly find some time to engage in some graphic sex, Lipsky takes an opportunity to throw in some rather unenlightening philosophical musings, and the film attempts to break through the static presentation by rather uncertainly upping the quirk factor.
Looming in the background of many a shot is Zak’s to-do-before-moving list. Painted in a neat, slanting hand on the apartment wall, the itinerary includes tasks ranging from the impossible (becoming a major league baseball player) to the feasible (anal sex). But while such a list serves as a projection of Zak’s hidden yearnings, it doesn’t so much open up that character as reduce him to a series of half-baked desires. Still, that bit is preferable to the appearance of not one, but two precocious kids, a boy who favors a macrobiotic diet and a girl who comes dressed as Einstein. While the latter character provides the film’s best moment when she chats with Molly about female sexuality and power in an exchange that, for once, feels pointed, she’s otherwise far too representative of Lipsky’s hit-or-miss approach to filmmaking. While the movie never feels less than intensely committed, its constituent pieces nonetheless seem to float in the ether, disparate groups of characters and lives that never cohere into anything more than incongruent ideas hatched from an overworked and under-organized imagination.