“Drunks” is an ambitious low-budgeter that uses a star-studded cast to overcome the lack of action and narrative drive. Theatrical prospects are iffy, but this could be socko on cable, where cast will be a major draw and long talking-heads monologues won’t seem out of place.
Writer Gary Lennon, adapting his play “Blackout,” and director Peter Cohn (son of ICM agent Sam Cohn, who helped get client Dianne Wiest aboard) lead the audience through a church basement meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Film goes from taking out the folding chairs to the closing serenity prayer. Attempt to open up the action by having Richard Lewis stalk out of the meeting and go off on a binge provides some dramatic moments thanks to Lewis’ intense performance, but excursion seems tacked-on in terms of the narrative.
But film’s core is the meeting. It gives all the actors a turn in the spotlight, and they make the most of it. No one is off-key, but Howard Rollins is especially gripping as the father whose drinking has led to a tragic auto accident, while Spalding Gray offers comic relief as a man who claims to have stumbled into the meeting when his choir practice was canceled, but who obviously belongs there. (Gray supposedly created his own monologue.) Faye Dunaway probably gets the best moment dramatically with a scene in which she follows up her own sad story with an offer to sponsor another attendee.
The real problem is that the conflict here is strictly internal. Except for Dunaway’s reaching out, and Lewis’ falling off the wagon and painfully climbing back on, one learns nothing about these characters except what they themselves reveal.
Director Cohn and his crew make the most of their budget, reportedly under $ 500,000, with the cast working for scale. In spite of the staginess of the church basement setting, full dramatic use is made of the room. The exteriors — featuring Times Square and environs as Lewis reels from liquor store to bar to drug dealer — do the job, but seem more documentary than the meeting scenes.
“Drunks” succeeds in presenting a fictional AA meeting and getting across the idea that alcoholics come from all walks of life, from Wiest’s doctor to Parker Posey’s Gen-Xer. But figuring out how to market this tough sell will be a trick.