The American independent filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine deploys Aubrey Plaza as both muse and spokesperson in this dramatic comedy tense on the ethics of the artistic process. If that sounds tedious, it isn’t: Levine’s playful deconstruction of tortured genius is a witty, provocative show of tyrannical directors, diva-ish actors, and over-invested voyeurs.
The film is organized in two acts. The first is a three-way play in which minxy actor-turned-writer-director Allison (Plaza) embarks on a sort of writing retreat in upstate New York. She rents a room in a cabin by a lake owned by Gabe and Blair (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon), two hapless “creators” whose relationship she exploits. The second act takes place on the disastrous last day of a movie shoot, reallocating the lakeside location but rearranging each other’s roles. This time Gabe is the writer-director, Allison his hapless wife and the film’s lead role, while Blair is his co-star and real rival.
Plaza designed an ingenious, impenetrable, deadpan screen character in cult TV sitcom Parks and recreation, delving deeper into it in the underrated comedy of 2017 Ingrid goes west. Here, as actress Allison, she is surprisingly volcanic, with a clenched jaw betraying vulnerability, fury, and desperation to please. Suspecting an affair between Gabe and Blair, Allison becomes more and more drunk, her ego starting to derail the shoot. There are shades of Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes Opening night and A woman under the influence. By the end of the movie, Allison is emotionally and physically exhausted. Yet this is what allows him to nail the performance.
As Blair, Canadian actor Gadon has remarkable comedic reach and timing, growing from a defensive and insecure wife to a cunning ingenuous. She’s especially fun to watch as the first Blair, a character who publicly and repeatedly undermines her partner (“He always says how fucked up feminism is”). Abbott, too, is a delightful and finely tuned parody; swearing, mean, in a relationship but flirtatious, hopelessly drawn to terrible hats. Between scenes, a Panama hat is exchanged for a shrunken beanie.
The film is self-aware, to say the least, when it functions as a comedy. Writer-director Levine has directed his wife, director Sophia Takal, in several mumblecore films, including Gabi on the roof in July and Wild canaries. He also starred in his first feature film in 2011, Green. Obviously, he knows the world of independent cinema inside out. From supporting characters, such as stoned assistant screenwriter Nora (Jennifer Kim) and first assistant director with diarrhea Cahya (Paola LÃ¡zaro), to privileged gentrifiers Blair and Gabe, whose cabin was inherited from Gabe’s family, the archetypes are perfect. Levine also has a bright ear for passive aggression. “You are very pretty!” Allison said, meeting Blair. “You are too,” she replies, not missing a beat.
Levine is curious about the cost of authenticity and whether human suffering is reasonably priced. The film’s bifurcated structure allows him to approach this question from two distinct angles. Each has its own aesthetic. The first part takes place more slowly, almost like a horror movie, the tension underlined by a sparkling and spooky piano. Sometimes the second part feels like a mock documentary, a portable camera sneaking in and out of a film in perpetual motion. The frenetic, high-stakes energy of the ensemble is matched by a hyperactive jazz score; it’s no wonder everyone keeps spilling their coffee.
The film is also divided according to gender. When a designer is the agent of the chaos of the story, it is an opportunity for a gender exercise, but when ethical indiscretions are committed by a male director, it becomes a clichÃ© ripe for satire. It’s a fascinating ploy, but it doesn’t fully work. Levine bookends Black bear with Allison sitting by the lake, contemplative in a Baywatch– red bathing suit. The image also returns to the middle of the film. As punctuation, it only emphasizes the composite parts as thematically related thought experiences, rather than a cohesive work.