'Once More With Feeling'

Jeff Lipsky's film is perhaps the first ever in which karaoke is the crucible of a mid-life crisis.

Anemic domestic sudser about insecure people and their minor anxieties, “Once More With Feeling” marks helmer Jeff Lipsky’s third feature and perhaps the first ever in which karaoke is the crucible of a mid- to late-life crisis. Turnout may be limited by how many people want to hear Chazz Palminteri sing “After the Lovin’,” as well as by the film’s obviously underbudgeted and occasionally underpopulated production.

Among the troubled members of Connecticut’s Gregorio family is Lana (“The Sopranos’” Drea de Matteo), who has two children, a distant (or distanced) husband Rich (David Aaron Baker) and a seething dissatisfaction with her body and herself.

One of the more effective scenes in the film involves Lana’s visit to a plastic surgeon, who uses a magic marker to render her rather spectacular body into a blueprint for immediate but undoubtedly short-term gratification. One of the problems with “Once More With Feeling” is the casting, and the game de Matteo as a whiny suburbanite is only one example of that problem.

The centerpiece of the story is Lana’s father, psychiatrist Frank (Palminteri), a doctor who can’t cure himself. Frank was a talented singer when he was young, but his parents steered him into medicine — clearly, the maddest moment in the movie is a sepia-toned flashback to Frank’s father singing “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me” on a street in what has to be Brooklyn.

With the wedding of his daughter Susan (Laura Bittner) coming up, Frank wants to get his pipes in shape and so he starts visiting karaoke bars, first with his wife Angelina (Maria Tucci) and then, after he meets Lydia (Linda Fiorentino), by himself.

A man with a dream is always compelling, until he becomes pitiful: Frank’s obsession with singing — never mind his fascination with Lydia — is more madly quixotic than dramatically moving. Palminteri sounds like a guy who once had a voice. At times, he even sounds like Tony Bennett might sound if his range had actually been strangled by age.

Frank can sing without embarrassing himself, but manages to anyway. His character needs more substance, and Gina O’Brien’s script needs something more than people with delusions to get us engaged.

“Once More With Feeling” would be a natural for cable, if the execution weren’t so distractingly strange. The lighting is harsh, and the framing is enough to give the viewer vertigo. You want to give Lipsky the benefit of the doubt –perhaps the idea was to reflect the family’s disorientation visually — but it doesn’t quite work. Add to this the obvious shortcuts — a wedding without people, and the karaoke competition Frank enters, where there is clearly no crowd.

Production values are substandard — in addition to the overall texture, the lip-synching is too obvious to overlook. But Fiorentino, who looks like she’s been enjoying semi-retirement, does sing a great version of “Am I Blue.”

Once More With Feeling

Production

A PHC Prods. and Big "S" Prods. presentation of a Rosetta Films production. (International sales: Andrew Herwitz, The Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Paul Jarrett, Nick Huston. Executive producers, Ed Carroll, Steve Matzkin, Sam Logan, Sarah Schroeder. Directed by Jeff Lipsky. Screenplay, Gina O'Brien.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Ruben O'Malley; editor, Sara Corrigan; music, Paul Hsu; music supervisor, Hunter Davis; production designer, Deana Sidney; set decorator, Nadya Gurevich; costume designer, Amy Bradshaw; casting, Patricia DiCerto. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Spectrum), Jan. 22, 2009. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Frank - Chazz Palminteri Lana - Drea de Matteo Lydia - Linda Fiorentino Angelina - Maria Tucci Nonno - Gene Ruffini Susan - Lauren Bittner Chloe - Daisy Tahan Eddie - Donnie Chiapetta

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