J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Martin Donovan’s Collaborator

If you are ever taken hostage, start doing acting exercises.  Anyone that annoying is sure to be quickly released.  It does not quite work that way for snobby leftwing playwright Robert Longfellow, but it is debatable just how much danger his captor really represents in Martin Donovan’s directorial debut and star vehicle, Collaborator (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Smarting from the critical drubbing unleashed on his latest play (the appropriately pretentious sounding American Excursion), Longfellow left New York and his ever patient wife to visit his aging mother.  As luck would have it, he is also able to re-connect with his former romantic interest, Hollywood actress Emma Stiles.  His childhood acquaintance still living across the street also wants to hang.  One of those right-wing ex-cons, Gus Williams has not made good.  In trouble with the law again, Williams shows up with a gun and a shopping bag full of beers.  Thus begins Longfellow’s hostage ordeal.

Donovan might have been Hal Hartley’s bro-muse in all those great 1990’s indies, but as a director-screenwriter he does not exhibit a natural talent for pacing or characterization.  While he deserves credit for his relatively sympathetic treatment of Williams, we never really believe the hostage-taker would pull the trigger, at least with Longfellow on the receiving end.  As a result, instead of a taut cat-and-mouse game, the deliberately stagey and static Collaborator feels more like forty-plus minutes of extended endgame, grinding along laboriously.

In lieu of plot progression, Longfellow engages Williams in a series of actors’ improvs designed to show the intellectual superiority of a New York elitist to the bitter red-stater.  Yet, the truth is both characters are just talking in clichés when they debate hot-button issues, such as the Viet Nam War.  This is all supposed to reveal the fundamental essences of their psyches, but it really just leaves viewers shrugging, so what then?

Frankly, Donovan’s emotional frozen Longfellow, as well as David Morse’s wounded, anti-social Williams are only too familiar, following predictable development arcs.  We have seen similar from both of them before.  However, Olivia Williams has some intriguing moments as Stiles.  Ironically in Collaborator, the movie star is the most human character of the lot.

While the premise of Collaborator had potential, the execution never really clicks.  There are some well turned moments here and there, especially from Ms. Williams, but it is clearly the product of an insular environment, much to its detriment.  Highly skippable, Collaborator opens this Friday (7/6) in New York at the IFC Center.