A cute comic idea is at the center of “Denise Calls Up,” a quirky meditation on alienation, love and the folly of urban relationships. In truth, this feature should have been a short, as current running time discloses structural weaknesses that make the narrative a bit tedious. Still, this original comedy deserveslimited theatrical exposure and should serve as a calling card for Hal Salwen, its talented writer and director.
This romantic frolic speaks directly to city dwellers’ increasingly detached and privatized lives in the age of AIDS and modern technology. Weaving the tales of seven workaholics whose lives intersect, pic owes its story to such ubiquitous technological innovations as cordless phones, sophisticated answering machines, call-waiting, conference calls, beepers and, above all, word processors.
The often hilarious tale starts with sad-faced Linda (Aida Turturro) as she begins another routine day, turning on her computer and dropping a cordless phone into her robe. Except it’s not a routine day: A table of untouched catered food is a reminder that her birthday party the night before didn’t go so well; in fact, nobody showed up.
Also stationed at a computer is Linda’s hyper, work-obsessed friend Gale (Dana Wheeler Nicholson), who apologizes for not making it to the dinner. Gale says she got caught up in work and one thing led to another — an excuse used by all those who failed to show.
Gale is now determined to set up a blind date for Jerry (Liev Schreiber) and Barbara (Caroleen Feeney) — via the telephone. When Barbara wants to see a photo of Jerry, who’s a friend of Gale’s ex-b.f. Frank (Tim Daly), an old picture of him as a boy is faxed to her within seconds — while she’s still talking to Jerry.
In a parallel subplot, Jerry’s friend Martin (Dan Gunther) makes a donation to a sperm bank in what he expects to be a confidential act. But soon he’s getting telephone calls from Denise (Alanna Ubach), the woman who used his donation to get pregnant. So much for the promised protection of anonymity. Pic’s conceit is brilliant: The anxious urbanites socialize, exchange secrets, make love, give birth — even die — without ever meeting. All events take place entirely on the telephone; the actors never share scenes with one another. Salwen also resists the temptation to use a split-screen to bring the disparate characters into the same frame.
Employing the classic structure of farce, the six urbanites in search of meaningful relationships are contrasted with Denise, the group’s outsider. The contrast is also conveyed visually: Denise is always outdoors using her cellular phone, while the others never leave their homes, not even to attend the funeral of one of their dearest friends, who dies in a car accident while orchestrating a big party — over the phone.
Salwen’s writing is for the most part inspired, occasionally graced by hilarious one-liners, but the conceit is repeated so many times that it gets tiresome. Progressively, tale not only becomes predictable but overstays its welcome by at least a reel. Pacing should be much faster, and ending is not totally satisfying.
Still, production values, particularly Mike Mayers’ sharp lensing and Susan Bolles’ resourceful production design, are accomplished. And excepting Sylvia Miles, whose cameo as Gale’s aunt is too much a caricature, the acting is uniformly pleasant.
At times, “Denise Calls Up” feels like an overextended, one-joke movie, but the joke’s a good one.