Showtime debuts a series of six half-hour films, all directed by actors, under the umbrella title “Directed By.” Curiosity factor should give the cabler respectable ratings, but, judging by the first two offerings, Showtime is batting .500.
Depending on your level of cynicism, the gambit of having actors direct short films can be seen as a move to A) provide a launching pad for thesps to kick off a new facet to their career; B) allow “I can do that” complainers to get it out of their system; or C) lure in well-known names in the hopes that they will agree to appear in Showtime telefilms.
The series kicks off with two entries: Treat Williams-directed “Texan” and JoBeth Williams'”On Hope.” Not surprisingly, given that these two are vets of film sets, both show a technical proficiency and a commendable lack of film-school showiness.
But Mr. Williams, working with the better script, has a light touch, while Ms. Williams underlines the script’s stereotypical characters by allowing, or encouraging, on-the-nose acting.
Treat Williams directs David Mamet’s “Texan,” a trifle that the director smartly doesn’t make too much fuss over.
It’s about a businessman (Dabney Coleman) whose suspicions about his younger wife (Dana Delany) are heightened when he discovers she’s carrying around a suitcase full of cash.
Mamet’s elliptical, stuttering dialogue (“She’s been — uh, she hasn’t been — I can’t say she’s been acting strange –“) is often characterized as naturalistic, but in truth it’s often as stylized and self-conscious as Kabuki. Still, Williams and his actors find the right rhythms and an appropriate subtlety for the tale.
Subtlety is exactly what’s needed in “On Hope.”
Mercedes Ruehl is cast as an ethnic character who is zany, full of life and fertile, while Annette O’Toole plays a WASP who is uptight, depressed and, of course, sterile.
Ruehl bangs her shopping cart into O’Toole, who bursts into tears, then Ruehl proceeds to make wisecracks about the woman’s groceries, appearance and name; naturally, they become immediate friends.
This opening scene is unconvincing, and story goes downhill from there, including a painfully forced childbirth-on-the-kitchen-floor scene (with very little mess and no umbilical cord. Awww, women, what do they know about childbirth?)
Lynn Mamet’s script abounds in cliches, and Williams, who has proven herself a performer of subtlety, compounds the errors by never allowing the actresses to throw away a line or play against the text.
Instead, they make faces to indicate the mood of each scene, either “funny” or “sad” (those are the only moods on display here) and Williams points the camera at the two performers as if to say “Look! Acting!”
Perhaps with the pile of scripts Showtime and production partner Chanticleer Films made available to the novice directors, JoBeth Williams drew the short straw.
Tech credits all display a telefilm-level of professionalism.
Upcoming are works from Peter Weller, Laura Dern, Danny Glover and Kathleen Turner.