Writer-director: Jose Cruz, Jr.
Starring: Shaun Paul Costello, Valentina Mohle, Brian Gallagher, Jacqueline Schneider, Brian Anthony Wilson, with Alan Ruck and Ryan Dunn
One of the common pitfalls of independent film comes by way of the navel-gazing that, perhaps somewhat understandably, a hard-grinding life of either on-the-fringe or upwardly mobile artistic endeavor engenders and encourages. Movies about would-be filmmakers or struggling actors and other artists are of course neither automatically good nor bad, but do often lose themselves in a thicket of puffed-up self-importance, mistaking their impediments and human efforts as somehow automatically more interesting than that of the so-called common man, and thus requiring of less dramatic lift.
Philadelphia-based filmmaker Jose Cruz, Jr.’s ‘Close-Up’ falls victim to this problem, blending together the story of a couple of wayward, aspirant actors with an even more pedestrian drama about recovery, since the film’s main characters also happen to be recently on-the-wagon recuperating alcoholics. Shaun Paul Costello plays a guy hanging onto his three months of sobriety by the thinnest of margins; his wife (Jacqueline Schneider) is in the process of divorcing him and threatening to move off with their young daughter, no matter that he’s landed a job as a mechanic with a pal (Brian Gallagher), and is also consistently in touch with his sponsor (Brian Anthony Wilson). The audition circuit is tough, but this lonely guy finally lands a friend in the chirpy, flirty cousin of his sponsor, a girl he dubs “Free Bird” (Valentina Mohle). She calls him “Straggler,” meanwhile, and since this is something that characters in movies do, these nicknames stick — the only monikers of affiliation the audience is afforded for the leads.
Though he’s trying to scrape together enough cash for both head shots and an evening acting class, Straggler submits to a flight-of-fancy day trip to New York City (where the movie scores some nice production value courtesy of a New Year’s Eve shoot in Times Square). There, over the course of less than 12 hours, his problems are wiped away when he gets some head shots and he and Free Bird magically become a couple… even though she’s leaving for Barcelona the next day.
An in-competition entry and west coast premiere at the recent Dances With Films festival, Close-Up has a certain technical proficiency, or at least a solid scheme — comprised of handheld camerawork, and a lack of precious staging — that feeds its tone, and meandering narrative aims. But as a writer, Cruz seems to just be throwing bits and pieces of every sort of dramatic scenario at a wall, and hoping it somehow sticks in compelling fashion. Straggler’s desperate desire to reconnect with his daughter goes out the window after he gives her a Christmas gift, and Free Bird’s imminent departure is so undiscussed that one could be forgiven for forgetting it completely. The movie also only fitfully engages with the themes of addiction and recovery. Inclusive of its very on-the-nose dialogue, everything about Close-Up’s dramatic conflict is perfunctory and uninspired, and there are false little details too (people drinking in the background at a party at the home of a recovering addict?) that become distracting, and derail certain scenes.
The performances here are functional — think of Costello as a sort of poor man’s Channing Tatum, early in his career — but far from gripping or involving, and Mohle in particular begins to grate after a short while. Sadly, no one in ‘Close-Up’ (apart from Alan Ruck and Ryan Dunn, who pop up in small cameos as a director and drug peddler, respectively) is really ready for their own close-up.
Written by: Brent Simon