Film Review: Love & Taxes

Adapted from a stage monologue, with the addition of dramatized flashbacks, this autobiographical shaggy-dog tale from a shaggy man-child trying to grow up makes us see love and taxes each in a new way.
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The anything-can-happen electricity of live theatre is hard to translate to screen, as filmmakers learned more than a century ago even though the power of the spoken word is paramount in drama—the adage "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage" refers as much to soundstages as to theatre stages. While successful translations of monologues are rare—with Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and Monster in a Box (1991) and Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1977) the highest-profile examples—there's room, however narrow, for others in the communal surroundings of a movie theatre, as opposed to two or three people watching on cable or streaming.

Into this rarefied realm comes Josh Kornbluth, best known for his autobiographical monologue Red Diaper Baby, a Second Stage Theatre production that ran off-Broadway at two theatres from March to August 1992 and was made into a 2004 movie. This follow-up film, completed in 2015, adapts a monologue that premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in June 2003, developed through improvisations at the Sundance Institute's Theatre Lab, San Francisco's Z Space Studio and Washington, DC's Arena Stage. So give the man credit for perseverance.

And also give him and his director half-brother Jacob Kornbluth credit for somehow delivering a charming and sort of lovable movie despite visible shortcomings that have little to do with its low budget. When pundit and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, making his fiction-film debut in a one-scene role, proves a more natural and convincing actor than star Josh, you know the filmmakers were fighting an uphill battle. And yet they won. Go figure.

Structured as a filmed stage performance with dramatized flashbacks, Love & Taxes focuses on hapless man-child Josh, a transplanted San Franciscan who had been raised in Manhattan by divorced parents including an eccentric Communist-sympathizer dad, who inculcated his child with a revolutionary utopian spirit. This expressed itself in things like father and son "sticking it to the man" by jumping turnstiles and sneaking in through the back door of buses (which in a glaring glitch certainly due to location-shooting constraints is depicted here with a San Francisco bus and not a New York one). In adulthood, where the bumbling Josh has failed at multiple jobs and now earns his keep as secretary to a caring and indulgent tax attorney (Warren Keith), this antipathy toward "the man" has kept Josh from filing his tax returns for seven years—or actually, from the context, ever, so why seven years is specified, who knows?

When persuaded to finally file, Josh finds that things are suddenly breaking his way. His monologue performances at a small theatre start gaining larger audiences, and he finds a lovely girlfriend (Sarah Overman, creating a wonderfully singular character) whose mildly neurotic obsessions complement his own. He also gets a Hollywood agent (played, remarkably for such a low-budget film, by comedy royalty Harry Shearer) who extends an option giving Josh a yearlong gig in Los Angeles trying to develop a screenplay. All this intersects with Josh being taken advantage of by a high-priced, smooth-talking "holistic" tax attorney (Helen Schumaker)—though Josh, admirably honest, admits he was lax in opening bills from her and thus finds himself at first $27,000 and later $50,000 in tax debt and lawyer fees.

Creative types getting into tax trouble is something to which any freelancer from Joe Average to Willie Nelson can relate—and there more and more freelancers than ever in the "gig economy" in which employers, claiming to be only facilitators, provide no health insurance, sick days, vacations or any of the other things fledging union organizers literally died for in order to achieve for us. The theme that eventually emerges in Josh's story is both sadly ironic and supremely logical.

Yet for all its likeability, Love & Taxes suffers from issues both silly and serious. It's disconcerting that Josh is much heavier and shaggier in the onstage segments than in the flashbacks, taking us out of the fictional reality by making us wonder how far apart these things were filmed and whether it's a deliberate comment on where his life had gone or just a lack of will to maintain continuity. And in a major lapse, he gives us a pidgen-Italian stereotype that might have been less offensive and more of a comment on Josh's preconceptions if more skillfully done. Few things in film are more grating than hearing an actor doing a foreign accent, even a comical one, badly.

Love & Taxes succeeds, though, in making you look at each title object in a new way. That's a rare achievement. Here's hoping it's not another baker's-dozen years before Josh releases another film.

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