“Fits and Starts” is appropriately titled. The directorial debut from Laura Terruso (who scripted “Hello, My Name Is Doris”), the film follows a pair of married writers – one wildly successful, one struggling – on a one-night trip from New York to Connecticut to attend a pretentious salon, only for one of them to go missing, leaving the other adrift inside a shooting gallery of wacky art world clichés. The model seems to be “After Hours” in a higher tax bracket and with a McSweeney’s subscription, and while it certainly has its moments, it remains frustratingly one-note, too cool to really commit to the screwball farce the premise is crying out for, and too enamored with picking off easy targets to draw real blood.

Once considered a rising literary star, David Warwick (Wyatt Cenac) has been fruitlessly tinkering with his debut novel for several years, during which time his wife, Jennifer “J.M.” Lee (Greta Lee) has published two, the latest of which has made her the toast of Manhattan. Whatever their respective talents, it’s clear that Jennifer has learned to play the game, while David lingers in the back of the room at her readings, sneaking bottles of wine into his messenger bag and mumbling the words “coming-of-age, autobiographical” whenever Jennifer’s high-powered friends ask about his work.

Hoping to break David out of his shell, Jennifer drags him along to an artist retreat at a country mansion, and David promises to attempt to network. The trip upstate goes sidewise quickly: the two are caught attempting to have point-proving roadside sex by a chuckleheaded pair of cops; they get lost looking for a wine shop in town; and after a contrived set of snafus, Jennifer goes missing.

David heads to the party on his own, hoping to find his wife there, and has to face a roving cast of try-hard artists and aristocratic poseurs without Jennifer to help him muddle through. From here, the film breaks into a series of comic vignettes, some of them quite funny – indie filmmaker Onur Tukel has a great cameo as a fatuous critic – and some entirely too obvious in their skewering of high-society silliness. The film begins to pick up some real momentum when David finds himself in a game of psychological chicken with a sadistic, possibly nymphomaniacal literary agent (Maria Dizzia), but it never quite gains enough speed to power it toward the explosion that is inevitably coming.

In the lead role, Cenac strikes a winning note of dazed intellectual befuddlement, but he spends most of his scenes in deadpan reaction mode, and only gradually emerges as a real character. Lee reveals a high-strung tinge of ruthlessness behind her character’s seemingly perfect professionalism, but she’s largely sidelined for the second half of the film. Terruso handles individual scenes well, and there’s an interesting undercurrent of intellectual anarchy running beneath “Fits and Starts” which hopefully she’ll allow to run a bit wilder on her next outing behind the camera.

SXSW Film Review: ‘Fits and Starts’

Reviewed at SXSW (competing), March 12, 2017. Running time: <strong>84 MINS.</strong>

  • Production: An Armian Pictures, Free Architect presentation. Produced by Margherita Arco, Neda Armian, Laura Terruso. Executive producer, Stacey Parks.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Laura Terruso. Camera (color), Benjamin Rutkowski. Editor, Robert Grigsby Wilson.
  • With: Wyatt Cenac, Greta Lee, Maria Dizzia, Alex Karpovsky, Ben Sinclair, Onur Tukel, John Rothman, Louis Cancelmi, Larry Murphy, Sam Seder
  • Music By: