Director/Coscreenwriter/Producer: Dana Adam Shapiro
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A friend of mine who just turned 30 said that people in their 20s are skewing the high divorce statistics in the United States because they got married before their personalities were fully formed and lived to regret it in record time. I’m not sure I agree with him completely, but it is true that it’s hard to know about the wide possibilities that exist in life without having lived for a while and experienced them.
Director Dana Adam Shapiro garnered an Oscar nomination for his documentary Murderball (2005), a riveting look at paraplegic rugby players whose full-contact games in specially designed wheelchairs show one new paraplegic that his life as an athlete is not over—it simply has to take on a new expression. In many ways, Monogamy, Shapiro’s first feature film and Best New York Narrative winner at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, takes up a similar issue that many people in their 20s are facing—the possibility of marriage in a society rife with divorce—and offers them alternatives to marital stagnation and dissolution. It’s a timely topic of hope, regrets, and creativity that echoes another film from last year, Certified Copy, though it will be a while before Shapiro is the master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is. Nonetheless, I’d say he has a pretty good shot at it.
Theo (Chris Messina) and Nat (Rashida Jones) are young, creative, and engaged to be married. Theo makes a living as a wedding photographer and taking candid shots of people living their daily lives (or possibly as a private investigator) through a business called Gumshoots. The film opens with Theo snapping pictures in a New York City neighborhood, seemingly at random, and then concentrating on one elderly man (Madison Arnold) as he moves through the streets, encountering friends and local business owners, and playing with some children. When this man comes to view the photos and pick up his prints, Theo tells him that he is obviously very well-liked and brings happiness in his wake. “Do you make a living at this?” the man asks. “Enough to get by,” is Theo’s answer.
Unfortunately, Theo has been told that what he does is not a living by the one person whose approval he needs—his father. Nat, whose work is unspecified but who is a talented musician and singer in her off hours, says that Theo needs to return his father’s numerous calls. Theo counters that Nat needs to meet his mother to work on the wedding invitations. Instead of taking responsibility for answering his mother’s simple request to choose a color for the invitations, they decide to leave it to the color of pasta Nat pulls at random from a jar. Their banter continues while Nat prepares dinner. She cuts her thumb rather badly in the process, and this cut will open the way to a staph infection that will send her to the hospital later in the film.
A rift starts to open in their relationship when Theo starts a Gumshoots assignment for a client known only through her e-mails as “Subgirl” (Meital Dohan). He goes to some public tennis courts where she wants the shoot to commence. Wearing a short tennis dress, she sits down on a bench and checks her watch. Theo starts shooting and is startled when she lifts her skirt and starts to masturbate. He pours over the pictures when he gets home; Nat, feeling his excitement and hoping not to lose him to it, tries to share it with him. They start to kiss, but Nat interrupts their precoital activity when Theo bumps her thumb and causes it to throb intensely.
Theo dives deeper into his obsession, as two more assignments come in from “Subgirl,” each of which shows her having sex on side streets with the same man. Theo obsesses over details in the photos, determining that her name is Penny from a ID necklace she wears and seeing from a wedding ring that appears in the first series of photos and disappears in the second that she is cheating on her husband. Theo neglects Nat whenever an e-mail from “Subgirl” comes in, completely ignores her phone calls from the hospital, avoids visiting her, and is surprised to find her on the couch in their apartment after being discharged without his knowledge. He can’t articulate the reasons for his behavior beyond saying that it doesn’t feel good not to be desired, referring to three times Nat declined to have sex with him. Is Nat too hung up to participate in his newly unleashed sexual kinkiness, or is Theo getting cold feet and looking for excuses not to get married?
Shapiro sets up two distinct moods in this film, one in which Nat and Theo’s life together plays at a much lower pitch than the jacked-up, edgy voyeurism Theo wallows in while shooting “Subgirl” and manipulating the photos on his home computer. Dohan looks like a hooker, a miniskirted Rebecca de Mornay blonde right out of Risky Business (1983), and her awareness of being photographed creates a tenuous connection with Theo that amps the intrigue. The second two photo shoots occur at night, and when “Subgirl” argues with and slaps the man she eventually fucks, we wonder if we’re witnessing a prelude to murder—indeed, a number of reviews of this film have compared it with Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), though dialogue references Gene Hackman’s floor-board scene in The Conversation (1974). Cinematographer Doug Emmett created a eerie presence for the film by “shooting on the RED in a fluid, long-take style using a mixture of handheld and locked-off camerawork.” Indeed, every sequence involving “Subgirl,” even the daytime shoot at the tennis courts, has a sinister quality, attributable not only to the shooting style, but also to Dohan’s wordlessly erotic performance.
By contrast, normal life can’t compete. Theo spends a lot of time looking at love’s foibles. He spends time with his divorced friend Will (Ivan Martin), who lets his toddler Hannah (Hannah Gilli) work in his bar serving hors d’oeuvres to patrons and saying that he and his ex-wife miss each other, but never at the same time. His wedding clients have trouble getting their act together for their photos or argue about which ones to include in their photo album, with one bride wondering whether her new husband has any taste at all when he says he likes all the pictures. In one brief and very funny scene, Theo, standing in for the hospitalized Nat, is told that making a decision about type styles and different shades of red on the wedding invitations is something he “has to think about,” overemphasizing the petty qualities of marriage rather than its real significance.
Shapiro is a master of the short, deft character sketch, evidenced when Nat’s young doctor, the obviously named Dr. Gleeman (Neal Huff), assumes a Kermit the Frog voice to tell her that she might have to have the damaged tissue excised if antibiotics fail to cure her; when she has to tell him to stop using the voice, he says, “It works on the pediatric ward.” Besides being funny, this scene shows Nat to be rather more grown up than the men around her, something that was suggested when Theo, who plays piano quite well, is too self-conscious to appear with the braver Nat during an open-mike night. When push comes to shove, Nat may be as afraid of marriage as Theo, but she’s willing to risk it. Theo doesn’t understand that marriage is not the end of love and excitement, but can be its beginning. His failure of imagination, including understanding the subjects in the candid photos he takes, exposes a deep hole in his soul.
Shapiro’s documentary background had him eschew rehearsals in favor of spontaneity. This approach has its advantages, but it also sank one pivotal scene: Nat and Theo’s confrontation plays like an acting class scene, and Messina seems particularly adrift in suggesting some nuance to his feelings, especially about Nat. Shapiro ends the film with a montage of happy moments between the couple as a meager substitute for a deeper relationship emerging from the rest of the film. Jones, on the other hand, seems to grasp Nat and plays her believably. The contrasting tones gave me the feeling of riding on a hilly country road—a slow, sometimes boring slog uphill, and an exhilarating ride on the downward slope. This pacing was perhaps deliberate, making me feel as though I was watching two films and preferring, like Theo, the thriller, but it was also not well enough integrated to bring out the home truths about the satisfactions of connection. The flaws, however, don’t sink this film. A smart script, some dazzling cinematography, and a timeless message make Monogamy well worth the ride.