Debra Kirschner’s The Tollbooth has all the nuance of a stun gun, beginning with its irritating lead character, Sarabeth (Marla Sokoloff), weepily asking via Sex and the City-style voiceover, “You ever look up and realize you’re like 12 exits further than you thought on a totally different parkway?” A screenwriter can get away this kind of baroque double-speak once (the road, like the looming tollbooth, is a metaphor for Sarabeth’s life), except the entirety of the film is littered with such nonsense, leaving audiences wanting to run for the nearest exit. Unlike, say, Phil Morrison, who’s mesmerized by the things that remain unspoken between people, Kirschner’s characters say everything that’s on their minds—and they say the darndest things! They don’t talk for the benefit of themselves, but for the edification of their audience. “See, in the art world, remember, cynicism never goes out of style—you just have to keep up with what it’s hip to be cynical about,” declares an art gallery viper who’s just rejected Sarabeth’s work. This put-down, so skillfully unrehearsed, hints at a satire of the art-world scene, except the style of the performance is so obliviously bad, not unlike Sarabeth’s paintings, as to suggest Kirschner takes it as gospel. This scene is emblematic of the film’s awkward, flailing pitch.
The Toolbooth is a film without subtext, telling the story of a terrible artist with a terrible job and a terrible Jewish family. The only thing that isn’t a complete disaster in Sarabeth’s life is her boyfriend, who leaves the poor girl ostensibly because her career is just taking off (has he actually looked at her work?), though it may be because she won’t shut the fuck up. Everything is a contrivance, not least of which the grotesque, condescending angles Kirschner chooses to shoot a baby shower, ostensibly to match Sarabeth’s attitude of the world. After dropping her like she’s hot, the boyfriend, naturally, makes Sarabeth a better artist. There you have it: the breakup as the manna of life. One wishes every one of life’s emotional upheavals had such spectacularly transformative powers, but such is the delusion of The Tollbooth, where every problem in Sarabeth’s family—one sister (Idina Menzel) is pregnant, the other (Liz Stauber) announces inopportunely that she belongs to the Sapphic set, Mom (Tovah Feldshuh) is a yenta, and Dad (Ronald Guttman, doing the worst impersonation of a Jew since, well, Richard Gere in Bee Season) is dying—is negotiated with neat little speeches that appear to have been thought-out in advance. In short, this film ain’t kosher.