Film Review: Chronically Metropolitan

Entertaining and original low-key family drama with comic elements about, among other issues, a writer’s responsibility to friends and relatives when he uses them as source material for his fiction.
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Despite its annoying title—evoking lots of “in” allusions and elbow-nudging smugness—Xavier Manrique’s debut feature is an unassuming entertainment that’s actually quite engaging. The family dramedy lightly explores, among other topics, a writer’s moral responsibility when his widely read fiction (in The New Yorker, no less) boasts less than exemplary characters who are clearly inspired by his friends and family. Nicholas Schutt’s nice screenplay considers too the consequences—or virtual non-consequences—of adultery.

What makes this film so unexpectedly pleasing along with the obvious—it’s a well-told tale and wonderfully acted—is the total absence of lofty statements, tropes and special pleading. It’s original in a small-scale sort of way.

Okay, there is the familiar milieu of affluent, artsy types living very comfortably, thank you, on the Upper East Side. But the backdrop is presented so matter-of-factly, it’s unobtrusive. More typically in films set among the well-heeled cultural elite, the shabby-chic sofas and distressed coffee tables reek of self-congratulation.

Here’s the story: Thirty-something author Fenton Dillane (Shiloh Fernandez) abruptly returns to his parents’ home having unceremoniously jumped ship, moving to San Francisco a year earlier when his aforementioned short story was published, offending his girlfriend Jessie (Ashley Benson), her parents, and an old friend, John (Josh Peck), who is now romantically involved with Fenton’s sister, Layla (Addison Timlin).

On the rebound, Jessie has gotten herself engaged to someone new (Chris Lowell) and the wedding is a week off. The problem is that Fenton and Jessie are still in love (clearly in lust), but she’s not willing to forgive him.

Fenton is not a bad guy. He’s just feckless, an irresponsible innocent—well, innocent within limitations. He knows he’s hurt Jessie and wants to make amends and pick up where they left off. At the same time, he doesn’t really think he’s done anything wrong, short of disappearing for a year, bad behavior as a minor misstep in the scheme of things.

As for his writings, it’s just “fiction,” he insists, arguing it’s de rigueur for writers to use those around them as grist for the story mill, and that said everyone is reading far too much into his story and projecting their own damaged self-images onto his characters. Mercifully, he never says that art trumps everything else, including protecting the feelings and privacy of others. Either way, he is forced to reassess what he has done when John accuses him of holding him in contempt and ultimately reducing him to a buffoon on the page. “I’m not a clown,” John says with strained dignity. “I’m not a clown.” You feel his humiliation and justifiable anger; also Fenton’s mini-awakening.

But the movie belongs to Chris Noth, who reveals real comic flair as Fenton’s dad Christopher Dillane, an oversexed novelist/professor—a wholly undisciplined child-man—who gives into any and all libidinous impulses that surface, preferably with his young, very young, female students, on occasion with two of them simultaneously.

Clearly patterned after a Philip Roth character—or maybe even Roth himself or more precisely Roth as seen through the eyes of his meanest detractors—he is a bastard (also a shmuck) with sexual charm to spare. In his wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling library, the camera focuses on one particular book lying on his desk, The Anatomy Lesson, Philip Roth’s third Nathan Zuckerman novel dealing with a writer suffering from some indecipherable pain and unable to write. Chris is afflicted by psychic paralysis mostly of his own making, he admits.

His children and besieged wife Annabel (brilliantly played by Mary Louise Parker) abhor him yet are unable to sever their ties with him—especially Annabel, who should have left him years ago. But thanks to Parker and Noth’s layered portrayals, it’s totally understandable why she couldn’t, even as her self-disgust grows with every passing day and each hurtful assault hubby unwittingly administers. He is compellingly magnetic and desperately dependent on her. Given the family dynamic, it’s no big surprise Fenton is who he is. Indeed, he pales in comparison to his father, the master of blind self-indulgence.

One quibble: The movie’s conclusion is a little pat, though it couldn’t have ended in any other way. Perhaps it should have taken a little longer to get there. Still, this one is worth the price of a ticket. Chronically Metropolitan won’t blow you out of your seat, but it’ll stay with you after you’ve left the theatre. How often can you say that?

I’m very much looking forward to Manrique’s next time at bat.

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