Edward Albee could write an argument. In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” George and Martha rip into each other, showing how a couple with some wear on its tires knows just where to drive in the nail to inflict maximum damage. Screenwriter Zac Stanford is no Edward Albee, and his low-key lovers’-spat dramedy “The Argument,” directed by Robert Schwartzman, pales in comparison with pretty much all the great relationship-on-the-rocks movies you can think of — “Blue Valentine,” “Marriage Story,” “Two for the Road,” to name just a few. But we’re in a pandemic, cooped up as couples (for better or worse), and watching an argument with your partner is better than having one.
The thing that might bring Stanford’s broken-record comedy too close to home is also its defining feature: Jack (Dan Fogler) and Lisa (Emma Bell) have a squabble, and rather than letting it go, or discussing it like adults, they both “wish we could redo this whole night so that you could see how wrong you are!” And so they proceed to re-create the conditions of their dispute, repeating the night ad nauseam until catharsis arrives. No, “The Argument” isn’t another mystical time-loop movie à la “Groundhog Day” or “Palm Springs” — no one’s trapped by supernatural forces, infinitely resetting until they get things right — but it’s not far off.
Jack is a disgruntled screenwriter (although, in a strange, slightly meta touch, his apartment is decorated with posters from Schwartzman’s two previous movies, “Dreamland” and “The Unicorn”). Lisa, his relatively gruntled girlfriend, is an actor. And tonight — that is, Square One of this oft-repeating exercise — was the opening of her most important stage role to date, an itty-bitty theater production of “Wolfgang.”
Jack has picked the occasion to propose, inviting his agent Brett (Danny Pudi) and Brett’s entertainment-lawyer wife, Sarah (Maggie Q), who has a photographic memory but no patience. Meanwhile, Sarah has suggested that her womanizing co-star Paul (Tyler James Williams) drop by, which he does, with girlfriend du jour Trina (Cleopatra Coleman) in tow.
It’s easy to see that Jack is jealous of Paul, but not quite so clear whether he has any right to be. Lisa and Paul flirt openly, which, logically speaking, is probably a safer thing than pretending there’s nothing between them. (They are actors, after all. If something were going on, they could probably hide it.) Among the six attendees to this Jean-Paul Sartrean cocktail party, communication doesn’t seem to be anyone’s strong suit, resulting in a kind of passive-aggressive free-for-all the whole night, amplified by copious alcohol consumption.
When the night ends and everyone goes home, they argue some more (this time mostly off-screen). In an effort to patch things up — or simply to prove to their partners who’s right — they all reluctantly agree to return the next evening for a do-over.
Couples quarrel. That’s only normal, although Stanford (whose “The Chumscrubber” played Sundance 15 years ago) and Schwartzman (who’s a member of the Coppola dynasty and probably doesn’t share Jack’s insecurities) don’t show a whole lot of insight into what connects couples in the first place. A relationship therapist might take one look at these dynamics and conclude that none of these duos is worth saving. Certainly, as performed, they’re smug and self-centered, too concerned with being right to recognize how they might have wronged their partners.
Fogler plays Paul with a sort of wide-eyed self-awareness that might make sense if he had written the script. (In its Charlie Kaufman-esque way, the movie kind of wants you to think he did, although the joke is that he’s only had one project produced, a zombie flick called “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.”) At one point, his character starts to transcribe everyone’s lines, turning the argument into “The Argument,” an absurdist play in which the parts can be recast by actors. Which they do, finding suckers on Craigslist willing to play along. Cue a host of cruel generalizations about the kind of desperadoes who audition for non-union theater in Los Angeles — a group to which Lisa presumably belongs.
“The Argument” is amusing for a while, and some of the ensemble — Maggie Q and Coleman in particular — manage to access something both human and humorous in what might have seemed harsh in another actor’s hands. But silly as the filmmakers intend for this to be, there’s something unpleasant about the whole ordeal, a kind of unexamined resentment toward all parties that’s perfectly acceptable in a black comedy (à la “War of the Roses”), although it’s far more effective when the characters are likable. When a writer like Albee goes there, audiences can sense the pain of lived experience, the implosion of what once passed for love. By comparison, Stanford and Schwartzman’s cutesy skirmish doesn’t feel honest; if it were, “The Argument” would probably admit that none of these people are ready for a relationship.