Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star ratings (1-5): 4.5
Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy…
One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly, and the schemer is hated…
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly.
Proverbs 14:10, 17, 20
Writer-director Stephen Belber has adapted his own 2004 Broadway play, the resulting film showing plainly the problems of such a process. The characters are limited to three, the locale to a diner and an apartment, with brief street scenes, and the wordy dialogue reducing the camera to a mere recording device rather than integral to the filming process. Fortunately the actor voicing most of the words is Patrick Stewart, whose Shakespearian background is as evident here as it was when he headlined the Star Trek: The Next Generation series. He and the excellent supporting cast keep our interest, and two-thirds of the way through the film the story of Tobi might even call to the minds of veteran film lovers the lush, much more highly romantic 1948 ballet film The Red Shoes.
Stewart is the garrulous Tobias Powell—call me “Tobi”—a dance instructor at Manhattan’s Julliard. Unlike the master jazz teacher in Whiplash, he believes in praising his students when they do well. And yet beneath his conviviality there is something sad or melancholy. Living alone, he seems to have no close friends or family. Having agreed to meet a graduate student and her husband at his favorite diner, he instructs the owner to gather a bowl of party mix for snacking before the meal.
The couple arrives a bit late by taxi. They are Lisa (Carla Gugino) and her husband, Mike (Matthew Lillard), having just flown in from the northwest. She has told Tobi that she is working on a graduate thesis on the history of dance in the 20th century and wants to pick his brain about the dance community of the communal Sixties. He had been an acclaimed dancer until a knee injury sidelined him for two years. Making a comeback as a choreographer, he had risen to the pinnacle of success, having worked in virtually every opera house in the world.
All this he self-indulgently reveals in the diner. Taking the couple to his apartment, they learn more about him, sometimes looking at each when he has turned away or left the room, with a “Isn’t he some character?” expression. Also, there has been a shift in the dynamics, Mike moving from just the onlooker operating the mini-tape recorder, to asking the questions. The queries have moved from dance details to the relationships of the dancers, and even more particularly, to their sexual relationships—and Tobi’s in particular with a dancer by the name of Gloria Rinaldi.
By now Tobi’s nervous suspicion is confirmed. There is no dissertation. It is not Lisa, but Mike who is the one wanting information from him. There follows a series of passionate confrontations that turn physical, Mike even wrestling with and holding the older man down on a couch to perform—well, I don’t want to spoil things too much. He then rushes out of the apartment, leaving Lisa to attempt to apologize and make amends. She explains about her husband’s obsession with coming to New York, saying that they did not intend for it to end this way. Slowly Tobi reveals what they want to know, sharing his past in which he was faced with a soul-searing decision. He made his choice and has had to live with the consequences for several decades. He also takes on a fatherly attitude when Lisa opens up and shares the recent tense history of her relationship, or lack of it, with Mike. There is a poignant reconciliation when Mike returns. The story might have ended at this point, but the next morning there is one more jarring revelation, leaving the three hurt, bewildered, but hopefully moving toward a wholeness that they had not known before their meeting.
The film is a powerful, if melodramatic, character study in which a man is forced to reflect back upon the consequences of a choice he had made—of career with its possibility of fame and fortune; or of a more private life with its rewards gained from doing the responsible thing. Like the traveler in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken*,” Tobi has been “telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence,” and his choice “has made all the difference.” Once again, too, we see the ancient wisdom of Proverbs, embedded in the two male characters. No matter what age we live in, or where, there are laws of human nature that will affect us every bit as forcibly as the laws of nature—“the moral arc of the universe,” as some have called it. No one escapes the consequences of past decisions.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2015 issue of Visual Parables.