Film Review: Union Square

Often funny and emotionally observant study of contrasting sisters has good performances, especially by Tammy Blanchard and, in a tiny but telling role, the transcendent Patti LuPone.

When we first see Lucy (Mira Sorvino), she is dressed like a would-be hip, modern-day Stella Dallas, fresh from a shopping spree and on the phone in Manhattan’s Union Square, desperately trying to communicate with an obviously indifferent man she’s obsessed with. His unwillingness to deal with her instigates a complete hysterical meltdown, with shopping bags a-flying.

In desperation, Lucy shows up at the apartment of her sister Jenny (Tammy Blanchard), from whom she has been estranged for years. Jenny receives her hesitantly, for the two are polar opposites, with Lucy a crass, over-the-top loose cannon, while her sister is a tightly wound vegetarian, anxious to shake off her earthy Bronx roots, the type who makes guests remove their shoes in her apartment. It becomes apparent that Lucy’s visit will be no mere drop-in and, before Jenny knows it, Sis brings over her equally brassy friend Sarah (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and then proceeds to shock and awe Jenny’s live-in fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), who matches his bride-to-be’s obsessiveness with his own jogging mania. Family secrets spill out all over the place, somewhat marring the pristine surfaces of Jenny’s loft and life.

Nancy Savoca’s 1989 breakout indie, True Love, also featured characters from the Bronx, and this one, much edgier and more real and chaotic, plays at times like a distaff version of Sam Shepard’s ode to sibling uneasiness, True West. Union Square is often uncomfortably funny and observant, especially about the differing ways women bond and then don’t. How you respond to it will largely depend on your reaction to Lucy, who is one of those indefatigably obnoxious love/hate characters, with the hammer coming down hard on the latter emotion. Sorvino goes at her with a lot of gutsy energy, but never quite seems to get under her skin in a way to truly humanize her and make her something more than a gaudy writer’s conceit. Blanchard, so good on Broadway in Gypsy and as a loopy Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, gets her strongest screen outing yet here. In believable subtlety, her performance is a contrast to Sorvino’s: Every sensation of discomfiture and wariness registers on her beautifully expressive face with impressive accuracy, like in a moment on a couch shared by her and a feverishly embracing Lucy and Sarah, an example of sisterly devotion she has never known.

Doyle underplays and is very good, as are two other actors who make late appearances. Michael Rispoli brings his easily ingratiating quality, and Patti LuPone in a stunning cameo appearance as the girls’ mother briefly lifts the film into a higher histrionic realm, certifying the near-legendary status she now enjoys as a consummate actor in any medium, any genre.