Only in New York” might be the subtitle of “East of A,” a thin, sometimes self-consciously hip rendering of the ebbs and flows of a trio of Gotham roommates from 1985 to 1995, with rise of AIDS as a looming backdrop. Title itself is characteristically in-crowd, referring to borderline slum area east of NYC’s Avenue A, but, with pic’s action strictly contained in a 2,500-square-foot warehouse space, the outside ‘hood is never seen. Still, behavior, writing and acting all clearly denote this as a New York movie through and through. Winner of the Burning Vision for best “outsider” pic at the Santa Barbara fest, pic has dim theatrical prospects despite some well-known TV names in cast.
Project emerged from a series of stage improvs developed by lead thesps and co-scripters Patrick Breen, Nadine ven der Velde and Scott Kraft, with a year-by-year scene structure taking hold. Both this schematic approach and stage origins prove detrimental, since helmer Amy Goldstein is burdened by having to keep characters in a box, preventing the kind of visually expansive or narrative surprises indie auds tend to prefer. Improv approach seems to do little good here, letting in much flabby chatter rather than honed, revealing dialogue. Instead of gaining a freedom from their improv roots, the characters feel plotted along a graph and are never allowed to breathe freely on their own.Poor sound recording makes even most basic connection with the characters a chore for several minutes, as Peter (Breen), Reggie (van der Velde) and Chart (Kraft) put their meager resources together and take out a mind-boggling 10-year lease on dank warehouse space from landlord and Reggie’s b.f., Hiro (Glen Chin).
Scenes pass by as the years do, with key events referenced in action (or in animated scene supertitles), such as epic Mets-Red Sox World Series of ’86 and Wall Street’s Black Monday of ’87, and it soon becomes apparent that this trio is more likely to develop wrinkles than engrossing interest.
Changes happen on elementary levels, as when Chart turns his life around by overcoming his drug addiction and getting himself in shape, or as various couplings (Reggie falls out with Hiro, and momentarily falls in love with Peter) come and go.Pic’s clear concern for AIDS epidemic is even treated with cursory dramatics, rendering Peter’s work with AIDS-infected children an off-screen matter and AIDS-infected Brother James (David Alan Grier) a character of little consequence.
Storytelling belongs more on stage than in front of a camera, as passing lives are frequently described but seldom seen. Potentially dramatic changes occur for Reggie as she marries Sylvester (Adam Arkin), but their ensuing breakup is never shown and only discussed, a pattern that persists throughout.
Cast is generally likable, but because characters are given only surface treatment, Breen, van der Velde and Kraft hardly work up any chemistry with each other or any emotional bonds with aud. Arkin and fellow tube stars Mary McCormack and Camryn Manheim barely have enough screen time to make an impression.
Period music selections are generally dead-on and judiciously chosen, while tech work, except for the sound, is by far pic’s major achievement. Ernest Holzman’s widescreen lensing employs fabulous use of space, back and key lighting for some of the most eye-popping compositions in recent indie pics.