"Cruel But Necessary" reps a major breakthrough for fiendishly talented scripter Wendel Meldrum, who is onscreen virtually every moment of this cunningly crafted comedy-drama. Pic, which has the marketability of tube-familiar faces in an edgier setting, still will require special handling to get the right theatrical treatment.

This review was updated on June 23, 2005.

“A Doll’s House” played with humor for the video age, “Cruel But Necessary” reps a major breakthrough for fiendishly talented scripter Wendel Meldrum, who is onscreen virtually every moment of this cunningly crafted comedy-drama. She’s by turns hilarious, touching and a little scary as a ditzy housewife and baffled mom who compulsively tapes everyone and everything around her, causing much trouble and only slowly finding meaning in her material. Pic, which has the marketability of tube-familiar faces in an edgier setting, still will require special handling to get the right theatrical treatment.

Veteran supporting player Meldrum, best known as the Low Talker (and poofy shirt designer) on “Seinfeld,” plays Betty Munson, an ordinary suburbanite until she encounters evidence of her husband’s infidelity on the family cam. She subsequently uses the offending tape to humiliate him — hence pic’s title — and then starts to ponder other uses for the digital instrument.

Soon she starts carrying the thing, inside a hideous bag with floral cutouts, to capture co-workers, friends, and family members, usually at their worst. These verite segs are linked by Betty’s monologues, which start out deliciously self-serving but subtly gather insight during a two-year period from separation to something like self-awareness.

Highlights include the babbling and determinedly celibate heroine’s run-ins with men, such as her macho Peter Pan of an ex (Mark Humphrey), a colleague (Rino Romano) she skewers for alleged sexual harassment, her horn dog building manager (Sam McMurray), and, finally, a sweet guy (winningly funny Fred Goss), whom she entices just to get at his vid-editing skills. “The tension in the room,” she confesses as they snuggle on the couch, “is that you could kill me if you wanted to.”

He doesn’t want to, but the same can’t be said of her teenage son, Darwin (Luke Humphrey), initially a murky figure brooding at the darkened margins of the frame. Gradually, he evolves into a central figure.

Strained mother-son relationship is really crux of the pic, shot over the course of a year and given more poignancy by the fact the superb lad is really Meldrum’s child, from marriage with her own ex, the elder Humphrey, who here plays an aging sports nut with no clue who his wife was, or is.

Most impressively, although at the expense of auds too impatient to grasp it, thesp-turned-helmer Saul Rubinek takes the initiating concept — that everything we’re seeing could have happened in Betty’s camera (and editing program) — and sticks to it with a doggedness that pays emotional dividends. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, purposely ragged-looking vid format, which sticks to found music and sounds, is best enjoyed outside the box and in mixed public.

Cruel But Necessary

Production

A Cruel But Necessary Prods. production. (International sales: Elinor Reid, Los Angeles.) Produced by Reid. Executive producers, Wendel Meldrum, Saul Rubinek, Chris Kern. Co-producer, Lynne Moses. Directed by Saul Rubinek. Screenplay, Wendel Meldrum.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Steve Ackerman; editor, Chris Kern; music supervisor, Rubinek; set decorators, Davis Alexander, Monica Fishman; costume designer, Meldrum; sound (Dolby), Ackerman; casting, Francene Selkirk-Ackerman. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival (New American Cinema), June 8, 2004. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Betty Munson - Wendel Meldrum Darwin Munson - Luke Humphrey Doug Munson - Mark Humphrey Chad - Fred Goss Teddy - James O'Connell Pearl - Julie Payne
With: Sam McMurray, Lisa Zane, Eddie Allen, Rino Romano, Regina Welch, Esther M. Appel, Sabine Ehrenfeld, Jacob DeMonte-Finn, Ian Axness, Kate Albrecht, Deborah Theaker.
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