Film Review: Certainty

More rom-dram than com, this well-written and acted film rises above the usual genre expectations thanks to the talent on display.

New Yorkers Deb (Adelaide Clemens) and Dom (Tom Lipinski), about to be married, are at their “pre-cana,” a Catholic “engagement encounter” that is a prerequisite for any couple wishing to get married in the Catholic Church. It’s a retreat where, along with other couples, they explore their relationship and the possibilities of marriage, while sleeping separately each night in dorm rooms. Director Peter Askin and screenwriter Mike O’Malley use this tradition as a leaping-off point in this exploration of modern relationships.

The focus of Certainty is on Dom, who, at best, is ambivalent about his religion and his family, with whom he reunites for the holidays in Rhode Island. Sister Melissa (Tammy Blanchard) is an ugly ducking turned swan who lost 100 pounds and wed shlubby Roddy (Bobby Moynihan, proving he can act a convincing human being after “Saturday Night Live”), who always loved her but is now chafing under their marriage, with acting aspirations he barely supports. Dom’s mother (Valerie Harper, too TV-glib) is deeply religious, always wanting to push her faith and family tradition on her son, while his stoner best friend Kevin (Will Rogers), an eternally aspiring singer/songwriter who never left home, is getting on his nerves with his immature comments about the “fuckability” of Deb and lack of self-esteem stemming from his failed college relationship with lifelong love Betsy (Kristen Connolly).

Okay, we’ve seen these shaky-kneed pre-wedding films zillions of times before, and at the outset of this I was prepared to yawn through the white-bread travails of a lot of yupsters trying to relate meaningfully to one another over the (yawn) holidays. But after the usual set-up, with all the facile bonhomie intended to charm the viewer, the intelligence and sincerity of the writing come through, imbuing the film with far more depth than one might expect. Real things start to happen, as when Melissa, feeling an egotistic sense of entitlement, sleeps with her opportunistic acting teacher, or Deb reads the journal she has encouraged Dom to keep.

Deb, with her burgeoning religiosity, has up to then seemed just a bland, blonde sweetheart. But the anger she displays over Dom’s recording of an attraction he feels towards a fellow worker has a real explosiveness, with its banal but true details like his buying her a Secret Santa present of the same bath oil he had given his fiancée. In turn, Dom reacts with a like fury over having his privacy invaded, as well as the assumption of infidelity, and their argument registers as a fully convincing lovers’ spat.

Their fight, in a church at their pre-cana, is interrupted by the appearance of Father Heery (Giancarlo Esposito), giving his usual level-headedly wise counsel of faith. The scene gains even more dramatic steam as a by now utterly infuriated Dom excoriates the Catholic Church, which scarringly advised him when he lost his father in childhood to a senseless car accident that this was a cross he would have to bear for the rest of his life. “I was eight years old!” he cries. “Even Jesus knew that he’d only have to carry that cross for a couple of hours and he’d be in heaven that afternoon! I wish I’d had that prize package.”

Lipinsky has a fine passion here, also seen earlier when he goes on the attack against Kevin, a moment which really kick-starts the film. Rogers is moving, and he has another good scene with Connolly when, reunited, she muses on her life and failed marriage: “I’m a fan of the guy-girl thing. But I want a guy who won’t make me help him pay off his student loans and then fuck someone else. A guy who doesn’t Jekyll and Hyde me after three years. When I caught my husband with that girl, all I could say was, ‘What the fuck?’ I couldn’t believe that, and all he did was shrug. How do you go from a vow to a shrug?” Blanchard, so creatively wonderful as Miss Adelaide in Broadway’s last revival of Guys and Dolls, is terrifically ingratiating as usual, but I wish she’d been given more to do.