Nothing Sacred

The best of a current batch of guys-sitting-around-talking pics, "Nothing Sacred" succeeds by starting with a smart, funny script, and by driving home its points with three solid leads. If "The Brothers McMullen" et al. could see distrib action, there's room on urban skeds for this superior Zeitgeist comedy.

With:
Darin ..... Paul Provenza
Matt ..... Stephen Dunham
Kevin ..... John Gloria
Natalie ..... Shannon Day
Max ..... Krista Taylor

The best of a current batch of guys-sitting-around-talking pics, “Nothing Sacred” succeeds by starting with a smart, funny script, and by driving home its points with three solid leads. If “The Brothers McMullen” et al. could see distrib action, there’s room on urban skeds for this superior Zeitgeist comedy.

Set in an offbeat-looking San Francisco, the pic (co-helmed and scripted by David Elliot and Mark Huppin, law students with no previous filmmaking experience) follows the tribulations of three longtime pals, all around 30, with each hitting some kind of personal impasse. Darin (Paul Provenza) is the sensible, married one, although a job offer in Berlin and a plateau in his life with Natalie (Shannon Day), have him secretly looking for a way out. His tall, hunky pal Matt (Stephen Dunham), meanwhile, is tiring of status as a tireless babe magnet and wishes he could find a niche as seemingly comfy as Darin’s. Matt’s goofy roommate, Kevin (John Gloria), would love to be like either of them, since anything would increase his chances of getting laid.

The balance in this precarious arrangement is tipped when Darin pushes a flirtation with his wife’s friend Maxine (Krista Taylor) into a full-blown affair. He’s soon caught in a sticky web of deceptions, but what really disturbs him is the approbation he gets from Matt, whom he was unconsciously trying to impress. Despite the latter’s rep for dumping dates for the slightest provocation (he fled the latest after spying some John Grisham novels on her bookshelf), he’s actually looking for Ms. Right, in his own promiscuous way. In fact, one glimpse of a stunning woman (Ria Snyder) walking on the Embarcadero sets him off on an obsessive mission. When he finally finds her, she responds, but he loses his usual cool and scares her off. Soon, even Kevin feels sorry for him.

The characters, who manage to be mendacious and likable at the same time, aren’t given much psychological background. (Darin’s statement that “I couldn’t pick my family out of a lineup” is one of the few hints we get.) Still, they feel like they’re made from whole cloth. Helmers wisely eschew trendy pop-culture references and stick to relationship issues that drive their creations, and the coded kidding around never seems too heavily burdened with agitprop. Values are generally transmitted through secondary means, as when the guys give conflicting (and hilariously inappropriate) sexual advice to Darin’s 12-year-old nephew. Editor Dan Hayes deserves special credit for breaking up longer sequences that could have run toward speechifying with more static treatment.

If the pic has a major flaw, it’s in the casting (and, to a lesser extent, in the writing) of the female roles. The women look just right, but they don’t have the acting chops or vocal presence to stand up to the men. Helmers do their best to protect the story from this weakness, but there’s no doubt that the dramatic elements would be richer if all forces were equal. (Don Novello, Penn Jillette and Weird Al Yankovic have cameos that don’t amount to much.) Elsewhere, deficiencies of budget and experience don’t show, except perhaps in the preponderance of murky interior and nighttime shots. Final print is expected to be brighter than Seattle-preem version.

Biggest selling point here is the clever, polished script, which hits postmodern buttons in an unforced way, just as the soundtrack goes alternarock without getting pushy about it. What sticks, though, is the talent of the well-handled leads. Provenza’s angst-driven philanderer will make auds forget his “Northern Exposure” stint, and Gloria shows unexpected depth in a role that’s primarily comic relief. But the big discovery here is Dunham, whose combination of lanky good looks and expert verbal timing is sure to get noticed in Hollywood.

Nothing Sacred

Production: An Ex Nihilo Films (San Francisco) production. (International sales: Carl Austen, Los Angeles.) Produced by David Elliot, Mark Huppin, Marshall Johnson. Directed, written by David Elliot, Mark Huppin

Crew: Camera (color), Joplin Wu; editor, Dan Hayes; music, Jim Lanzone; production design, Christina Ecklund, Andrew Piccone; costume design, Keva Marie; sound, Allen Schaaf, Neil Crawford; assistant director, Brian Benson; casting, Lauren Flanagan. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 3, 1997. Running time: 98 min.

With: Darin ..... Paul Provenza
Matt ..... Stephen Dunham
Kevin ..... John Gloria
Natalie ..... Shannon Day
Max ..... Krista Taylor
With: Ria Snyder, Corie Henninger, Erin MacArthur, Megan Carmichael, Marcia Hammelev, Karen Duffy, Penn Jillette, Don Novello, Weird Al Yankovic.

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