Likely to be pegged as a gay “Soapdish,” writer-director Richard Glatzer’s “Grief” actually has a good deal more heart and wit. Modestly mounted indie will need solid word-of-mouth to attract a deserved arthouse aud — as comic elements gradually fade to surprisingly effective drama, it’s too complex for easy selling. But terrific script and performances should ensure those good vibes.
The setting is a former prostitutes’ hotel now supplying offices for TV production company. They crank out episodes of “The Love Judge,” a tacky tabloid-style syndicated series.
Flashback action takes place during a Monday-to-Friday workweek, framed by head writer Mark’s (Craig Chester) suicide contemplation on the first anniversary of his lover’s AIDS death.
It’s a hairy five days. The imminent departure of no-nonsense exec producer Jo (Jackie Beat aka Kent Fuher, in an initially disconcerting but deft piece of cross-gender casting) sets Mark and serious-minded divorcee Paula (Lucy Gutteridge) against one another as competing successors.
Emotionally vulnerable Mark has a crush on writer Bill (Alexis Arquette), who’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and is sending out flirtation signals in all directions. Career ambitions of Jo’s assistant Leslie (Illeana Douglas) are distracted by romantic attentions from a cute copy-machine repairman.
Tensions are compounded by homophobia of the (unseen) exex upstairs, as they decide who ultimately gets the big promotion. Mark’s gloom is further pressed by discovery that his best friend/story editor Jeremy (Carlton Wilborn) has already launched a secret affair with baby “closet case” Bill. Best running gag is Jo’s mortification on discovering evidence — milky stains, used condoms, a bit of unused lube — of their trysts on her office couch.
Scenario starts out looking rather insular, just another amusing look at behind-the-scenes Hollywood incestuousness. But the familiar satire soon develops no end of healthy wrinkles.
“Grief” is ultimately about the redemptive value of friendship. It credibly conveys (in strong confrontation/monologue scenes) that these characters really do care about each other.
The barbed verbal wit is sometimes muddied by tinny sound recording. But video-shot glimpses from the ersatz “Love Judge” series are hilarious — featuring such L.A. underground staples as Paul Bartel, John Fleck, Mary Woronov and Johanna Went in ludicrously apt parodies of televid “docu-drama” scenarios.
Central performances are excellent. Chester’s melancholy Mark is understated and enormously appealing. Douglas nearly steals the show as genially “burnt-out party girl” Leslie. While visually nondescript, Glatzer’s direction is perfectly attuned to his lovingly fostered ensemble rhythms.
“Grief” isn’t a dazzling debut technique-wise. But mix of drollery and genuine warmth induce gratitude of another, perhaps deeper stripe. As “feel-good” sleepers go, this one truly deserves to be petted. It’s funny, smart and sweet.