Perhaps deciding that the relationship tribulations of white, coastal-American men of medium-to-high class-privilege levels — which were well-served on the big screen in previous decades — have been rather overlooked of late, writer-director Noah Pritzker goes back to the well of male midlife neurosis for his sophomore feature and dredges up not quite enough to fill up one amiable indie dramedy. Powered largely by the affability of Griffin Dunne playing a reluctant pending-divorcé whose aging father has recently left his aging mother and whose adult son is having woman troubles of his own, “Ex-Husbands” which world-premieres at the San Sebastian Film Festival, is likable enough in intention, but flounders en route to its destination. Not unlike its befuddled protagonists, who can’t seem to translate meaning well into doing well.
We meet Peter Pearce (Dunne), a New York dentist, in the Walter Reade Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center — like many of the film’s signifiers of cultural sophistication, this one is rather obviously signposted — where he is going to see a movie with his father Simon (a spiky Richard Benjamin). As they await the arrival of their respective wives, Simon confides in his son that he has decided, in his mid-80s, to divorce from Peter’s mother (his wife of 65 years), reckoning that he has another “25 good years” to play the field. Peter, aghast, points out the mathematical fallacy, but Simon’s mind is made up. Across town, around the same time, Peter’s thirtysomething son Nick (James Norton) exchanges loaded looks with a pretty woman outside a bar.
Six years later, elderly Simon’s optimistic projections have come to nought – he is in a care home and barely responsive to Peter’s forced-cheerful chat. Among the only mumbles he can manage is a word that sounds a lot like “Tulum,” which Peter seizes on: he has just decided, in a funk over his impending divorce from Maria (an underused Rosanna Arquette), to head to the Mexican resort town for a short break. He claims not to know that it’s the same date and destination as Nick’s bachelor party weekend, Nick now being engaged to the woman he met at the bar. But when his other son Mickey (Miles Heizer), in his capacity as Nick’s brother and best man, insists that their dad cancel the trip, Peter finds it’s all non-refundable, and slinks onto the plane, determined not to bother his kids on their bachelor party bacchanal.
But Nick is harboring a secret from Mickey and his dad and the coterie of buddies who’ve flown to Tulum to celebrate with him. He and his fiancée are on the outs, essentially because Nick has never managed to “get his shit together.” Suffering from a wan melancholia that sits strangely on so strapping a dude, Nick eventually confesses his break-up, which rather ruins the mood of laddish hi-jinks. Meanwhile Peter, staying in a hotel nearby, has struck up a mild flirtation with Eileen (Eisa Davis) who’s in town to officiate the wedding of her goddaughter, while out-but-reticent Mickey has been secretly hooking up with Arroyo (Pedro Fontaine), one of Nick’s ostensibly straight, married friends.
This borderline sitcom setup is rife with dramatic opportunity, but Pritzker’s screenplay favors rueful anticlimax over conflict at all times. And while the characters remain sympathetic in their broad brushstrokes, they’re quite maddeningly vague in the details — the gang of Nick’s closest friends, bar boorish wildcard Lowry (Simon Van Buyten), remain largely undifferentiated except by ethnicity and/or level of tolerance for Lowry’s manchild energy. Nick, whom we’re repeatedly reminded is very bright, is well-known for his acerbic opinions on books and movies but never actually says anything about any specific book or movie. And even the promising-seeming “After Hours” reunion of Dunne and Arquette is barely capitalized on, perhaps because Pritzker feared an overt reference would take the viewer out of the movie, when there just isn’t a whole lot of movie here to ever get taken out of.
Though loosely in the vein of early Woody Allen, or mid Noah Baumbach, the writing here has none of their astringency. In DP Alfonso Herrera Salcedo’s polite, friendly camerawork, the guys contend with such issues as an unexpectedly seaweedy beach, the no-show of an acquaintance for a diving trip, and the growing-apart pains that adult friends experience, as in the way all the others regard Lowry’s giggling gift of a pneumatic sex toy as too juvenile for the men they have become. And it settles further into this winsome groove, pillows plumped by Rob Coudert’s somewhat anonymous score, once the cowed Pearce men return to New York to discover that life has thrown them another of its sad curveball inevitabilities. Will this jolt of actual mortality nudge them out of their mopiness? The best “Ex-Husbands” can do is to summon a heartfelt, wistful maybe.
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