The premise of Life Partners (which screens at Tribeca Thursday and Sunday afternoons) recalls bits of better movies like Bridesmaids and Frances Ha. Like many twenty- and thirtysomethings before them, two very close female friends, played by Community‘s Gillian Jacobs and Gossip Girl‘s Leighton Meester, start to drift apart when one of them starts striding ahead in too many parts of her life: a steady and well-paying job and then, worse, a relationship that actually seems to be working out with a genial nerd-bro (Adam Brody). The movie treats their biggest difference—Meester’s character is a lesbian—with gratifying casualness: it doesn’t make any insulting assumptions about a sexual attraction between a gay lady and a straight one beyond the implication of a certain platonic faux-relationship comfiness on both ends when no girlfriends or boyfriends are in the picture.
So while the material lacks the ebullience of Noah Baumbach’s film or the laugh-out-loud hilarity of Kristen Wiig’s, it also has a sharp specificity about both its lead characters’ lives. The laugh lines sometimes come off as glib or sitcommy—maybe not surprising, considering the three major characters are all TV pros, and a couple of SNLers turn up in smaller roles—but more often Jacobs and Meester nail the conversational rhythms of smartassed but unassured women. (On maturity: “There are certain things I can’t do anymore, like sit on the floor at airpots”—asterisked with the clarification that they absolutely do sit on the floor at airports, but can feel the sad judgments) The push-pull between them is gentle, rooted in festering little problems like a minor fender-bender that Jacobs refuses to resolve “on principle,” and attuned to the neuroses of its characters, right down to the way close friends talk about each other. It’s the kind of sweet, relaxed movie that’s harder to make than it looks.
For example: plenty of indies about twentysomethings turn out like About Alex, a self-conscious Big Chill-ish movie about college friends reunited by their friend’s attempted suicide (that screens at Tribeca this afternoon and on Sunday). TV faces abound here, too: Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Rec, Max Greenfield from New Girl, Jane Levy from Surburgatory, and Maggie Grace from Lost, plus Jason Ritter (as the would-be suicide case), Nate Parker and Anthony Minghella. They assemble at Ritter’s lakehouse and work out plenty of tangled relationships, once and future crushes. Full disclosure: I don’t know how all of these conflicts were resolved; due to a late start, I had to bolt to another screening five or six minutes from the end. Fuller disclosure: bolting was not a hard call to make. About Alex, written and directed by Jesse Zwick, isn’t terrible, but it cripples itself with unofficial genre trappings.
Showing friendships drifting, of course, the way Life Partners does, it trickier business than talking endlessly about it, the way the characters in About Alex. I don’t mean to deny the movie its premise, but it seems like attempted suicides in movies are almost always act-one contrivances to assemble a bunch of quirkily conflicted characters. The movie even tries pointing this out with jokes (“If you wanted to see all of us, you could’ve shot us an email,” Greenfield huffs) as well as melodrama (it turns out his slashed wrists really was a de facto let’s-get-together email!) as part of a self-awareness campaign that also includes Plaza pointing out that it’s like “one of those 80s movies” about a group of characters reuniting.
When it’s not reveling in its self-awareness, About Alex sets itself up for irreverent funny-sad jokes about a terrible situation, but the comedy is largely soft and easy. Max Greenfield, playing a surly wisecracking PhD student who hates everything, has the most overwritten dialogue; Aubrey Plaza fares the best because she has the most notes to play: worry over her troubled friend, exasperation over her life’s compromises, concealed lust for at least one of her friend, and a dash of her trademark sarcastic contempt. Meester and Jacobs “do” less in Life Partners, but the movie’s lower-key storytelling gives them a greater range. The actors in About Alex mostly have to pair off each other for sensitive conversations. Life Partners even scoops Alex‘s attempts to focus on social media, with casually spot-on depictions of texting and Facebook soundly trouncing the latter’s forced chatter about Instagram and Twitter and recording live instead of living it. As it turns out, About Alex is about as trenchant and heartwarming as a status update.
Aaron Katz used to work the twentysomething-drift territory pretty well. Actually, he started out with teenagers in the barely seen Dance Party USA, then moved on to twentysomthings for Quiet City and the slightly older-skewing but still youthful Cold Weather. With Land Ho! (which screens at Tribeca tonight and Friday), he takes a bigger leap—well into retirement age. Cowritten and codirected with Martha Stephens, the movie follows the American-born Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Australian-born Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) on an impromptu trip to Iceland. They used to be married to a pair of sisters; one divorce and one death (and another divorce) later, they still have each other, even if Mitch’s brashness and vulgarity seem at odds with the more genteel Colin.
I saw Land Ho! as a litmus test, of sorts, for my general love of Katz’s work: do I appreciate him just as much divorced from characters my age (or, ok, at least an age that I remember being, however faintly)? While Land Ho! feels even more like a travelogue than the similarly wandering Quiet City; Katz and Stephens drink in the Icelandich scenery with lots of slow pans and push-ins, and the natural beauty of the scenery feels like less of a challenge than Katz’s capturing of urban visual poetry. But it’s also proof that Katz’s talent doesn’t depend on telling stories about characters within his own demographic.
Much of the movie belongs to its two lead actors, and neither of them push too hard on the oddness of their coupling, maybe realizing how distinctly their characters’ personalities come through. Their accents, New Orleans-ish for Nelson and Australian for Eenhoorn, have an interlocking musicality, and enough confidence and easy familiarity that I convinced myself I’d seen either or both of them in another movie before. As it turns out, I hadn’t: Eenhoorn has a number of credits that I’ve never seen and Nelson only has a handful (including a part in one of Stephens’s previous films).
They carry a lot of two-character scenes, with talk of travel plans, movies, Facebook, and aging, among other topics. But Land Ho! isn’t a pure two-hander. When Mitch and Colin pick up Mitch’s twentysomething cousin (once-removed) and her traveling companion, Katz and Stephens subtly show how Mitch’s proximity to youth keeps him going, even if nothing happens. (Quiet City‘s Karrie Crouse is amusing as the deadpan cousin, who characterizes Mitch as “kind of uncle-ish” despite their technical cousin status.) Compare this to the cutesy antics-heavy groove-back comedy like Last Vegas; Land Ho! essentially delivers a Hollywood-friendly outlook (aging doesn’t have to be the end) in a more humanity-friendly package.