Timothy Hutton’s fine, loose-limbed perf as a man adrift lifts “Multiple Sarcasms,” frosh scribe-helmer Brooks Branch’s male menopause apologia, out of cliche-ridden territory — at least temporarily. Hutton portrays a successful architect in 1979 who, though happily married with a great little girl and an understanding gal-pal, only finds fulfillment holed up in the bathroom, venting his angst on a typewriter as he transforms life into art. But simplistic romantic-comedy elements swoop in with a vengeance once the conflict between familial obligation and selfish creativity is triumphantly resolved. After its May 7 limited release, “Sarcasms” should quickly find a cable berth.
Experiencing a midlife crisis and unable to pinpoint the reason for his growing dissatisfaction, Gabriel (Hutton) spends his days at the movies (watching the Jill Clayburgh-Burt Reynolds artifact “Starting Over” over and over), neglecting his job and his family. Once the writing bug bites, he converts his bathroom into a literary workspace and his lifetime experiences into a play, with odd fantasies of cheapo musical extravaganzas like some poor man’s “All That Jazz.”
Though Gabriel’s precociously adorable 12-year-old daughter, Lizzie (India Ennenga, never cloying as the wise linchpin of the clan), showers him with understanding, wife Annie (Dana Delaney) proves less amenable, and domestic tensions rise. Even his sole soulmate, longtime friend Cari (Mira Sorvino) — who, as a record exec, provides the excuse for some of the better choices in the film’s otherwise uneven soundtrack (including a live appearance by Joan Jett) — is alienated by the depths of Gabriel’s navel-gazing insensitivity.
Branch has populated his pic with reliable if off-A-list veterans. Sorvino manages to keep the quirkiness of quasi-alcoholic free spirit Cari from feeling forced; Mario van Peebles executes a nicely understated turn as the hero’s gay, wisecracking sidekick; and Stockard Channing applies her typically welcome affectionate brusqueness to the role of Gabriel’s literary agent.
But Branch’s script constantly pulls its punches, making Hutton’s character the innocent victim of his own artistic compulsion; if this supposed antihero were any cuter, he’d be a plush toy. Incidental elements are repeatedly weighted in Gabriel’s favor, such as the choice of the chilly Delaney as Gabriel’s nice but not-too-sympathetic spouse. Gabriel’s yearlong unemployment apparently has no effect on his ability to maintain his large Gotham apartment, while his lack of literary experience poses no barrier to a theatrical career.
Strangely, the film succeeds stylistically where most fall flat in its presentation of the play-within-the-film, which proves far more formally inventive and witty than the rather bland movie that surrounds it.
Tech credits are generally unexceptional, but period reconstruction registers as convincingly casual and unobtrusive.