Moving gracefully from comedy to drama and back again, pic has a sexy, freewheeling spirit that brings considerable life to the now-familiar alienated-filmmaker genre. It's also a solid vehicle for the talents of Jeremy Sisto, who gives a soulful edge to the basically sullen outlook of pic's protag, a novice helmer who has lost his wife and career within a year of moving to L.A.

Moving gracefully from comedy to drama and back again, “This Space Between Us” has a sexy, freewheeling spirit that brings considerable life to the now-familiar alienated-filmmaker genre. It’s also a solid vehicle for the talents of Jeremy Sisto, who gives a soulful edge to the basically sullen outlook of pic’s protag, a novice helmer who has lost his wife and career within a year of moving to L.A. Pathos and Hollywood satire mix surprisingly well, with “Space” taking on more shape and meaning as it goes along. Pic may be too subtle for general auds, but college and young-adult crowd could respond if marketers play up attractive-cast angle.

Bay Area filmmaker Matthew Leutwyler, on his sophomore effort here, had a rocky road making his debut, the similarly movie-obsessed “Road Kill,” which debuted at the Santa Barbara Film Festival earlier this year. The follow-up is laced with exaggerated references to that Hollywood experience, starting with a funny opening seg that finds a smarmy studio exec (Garry Marshall) giving filmmaker Alex (Sisto) such a patronizing once-over that the younger man, selling his “Road Kill”-like project, just can’t help but pitch his Mont Blanc right through the producer‘s hand.

After that, his agent (Andy Berman, making a big impact in just one scene) tells him it’s either sign up for a “Punky Brewster” reunion telepic or hit the proverbial road. Consequently, Alex hightails it back to San Francisco, where he was oh-so-happy with the now-deceased Maggie (daytime vet Vanessa Marcil), whose demise is referred to but never explained.

Naturally, things have changed in the interim, although there’s no shortage of gorgeous, eccentric women to greet his return. First, and finest, is French art-lover Zoe (stunning Clara Bellar) whose mailbox he runs over in Marin County. Then there’s his bubbly pal from high school, Arden (Australia’s Poppy Montgomery). And also the what-planet-is-she-from Paternelle (Alex Kingston), a high-society type who offers him a ritzy place to stay. They all want something from him, and offer even more in return.

Along the way, he hooks up with his childhood friend Jesse (the improv-happy Erik Palladino), who specializes in monologues about masturbation and penis size — and that’s in mixed company — and locks horns with his longtime rival, Sterling (Vincent Ventresca), who’s now a city supervisor. Neither man can quite remember why they’re angry with each other, but pretty soon they’re up to their old pranks. This is one of the weaker aspects of the tale, since Sterling’s presence reps such a transparent attempt to introduce conflict. Alex’s real battle is with his memories. Or, as one character bluntly puts it, “You’ve got to stop hiding behind your dead wife.”

There are too many scenes in which characters rehash old times, throwing in random punch lines to cover up for expository plainness, and Alex indulges in voiceovers that describe things we already see or know. But even in the off moments, Leutwyler’s affection for his characters and their milieu is apparent. (The helmer has already trimmed 14 minutes of flab from the print that preemed in Seattle.)

Another plus is the mileage lenser Dave Scardino gets out of S.F. and Marin locations generally overlooked by Bay Area shoots. And since Alex’s crowd hangs out with genuine alternarockers (members of the bands Cracker and the Verve Pipe have cameos in the pic), guitar-driven music is unusually well integrated with this inviting “Space.”

This Space Between Us

Production

A TSBU/LLC production. Produced by Scott Leutwyler, Matthew Leutwyler, Rebecca Taylor. Executive producers, Jun Tan, Miranda Bailey. Directed, edited by Matthew Leutwyler. Screenplay, Leutwyler, Peter Rudy.

Crew

Camera (color), Dave Scardino; editor, Peter Schink; music, Johannes Luley; music supervisor, Maria Alonte; production designer, Nathalie Dierickx; set decorator, Patrick Sterling Ludden; costume designers, Lynn Rosenzweig, Lynn Ristic; sound, David S. Silberberg; assistant director, Michael K. Devaney; casting, Dan Shaner, Michael Testa. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 1, 1999. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Alex Harty - Jeremy Sisto Maggie Harty - Vanessa Marcil Arden - Poppy Montgomery Zoe Goddard - Clara Bellar Jesse - Erik Palladino Paternelle - Alex Kingston Sterling - Vincent Ventresca Joshua Wild - Taylor Negron Steve Mayland - Garry Marshall
With: David Charles Lowery, Kate Donnellon, Andy Berman, Leslie Bibb, Deborah Fink, Brian Vander Ark, Danielle Bassett, Nakia Ra'Shay Burrise.
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