Modern Love is Automatic
Directed by Zach Clark
Modern Love is Automatic, Zach Clark's well-liked submission to SXSW 2009, knows it wants to be cool, and its recipe mixes abrupt hardcore music cues over pastel pink mattes with stretches of Jarmusch vacancy featuring sighed dialogue like "Nothing ever changes" and "It doesn't really matter." The startling quiet-loud ruptures might be an ostentatious attempt to dissociate Modern Love from mumbledom (Clark edited Aaron Katz's Dance Party, USA), but regardless of intent, the schizo theatrics, professionally assured performances, and a too-rare funniness here make for absorbing and refreshing viewing.
Melodie Sisk is Lorraine, a bored nurse at a hospital in Wherever (the movie was shot around DC and Alexandria) who comes home one day to find her live-in boyfriend banging someone else. Already established as a cold fish, Lorraine barely cares but ejects him anyway. After posting a classified ad (the text is displayed onscreen), she accepts an unlikely roommate in bubbly wannabe model Adrian (Maggie Ross), who beams with the assurance that they'll be the "best roommates ever." The perpetually fired Adrian accepts a job at Luxury Mattress, where the female staff uses club-slut dresses and lax petting restrictions to coax the credit cards out of sad men in want of bedding. Lorraine conceives an escape from her rut when she finds a discarded issue of S&M rag Shackled Monthly. She becomes a regular reader, then goes a step further and dons the leather and whip herself, placing ads to lure willing slaves to her room at a Days Inn. It's colorful moonlighting, but Lorraine remains aloof (her response to everything is an apathetic "yeah"), even when Adrian's boyfriend (a spirited Carlos Bustamante) begins violently stalking her, and she starts dating the hospital's handsome new doctor.
Lorraine's cool "otherness" is established by her sipping of third-tier cola Tab through colored straws, and her reliance on a black and white direct address video diary (we're shown wordless snippets) for emotional release. Luckily the comely Sisk, who combines Simone Simon's face with Kathleen Turner's voice, goes further than these signifiers, and by the end her steely veneer is revealed as a mask for real vulnerability and need. So too Adrian, a ridiculous irritant on the surface whose never-say-die immunity to humiliation ends up touching. When the showy dark comedy turns sentimental in a penultimate scene, Sisk and Ross earn the pathos. Clark might've stopped there, and resisted a pandering final scene of a karaoking Lorraine that co-opts the emotion of one of New Order's best-known songs.
Opens August 20 at the rerun Gastropub Theater