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BEING FRANK

Producer:  Karen Kehela Sherwood, Amanda Marshall and Miranda Bailey
Director: Miranda Bailey
Writer: Glen Lakin
Stars: Jim Gaffigan, Logan Miller, Isabelle Phillips, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, Alex Karpovsky, Gage Polchlopek, Danielle Campbell, Emerson Tate Alexander and Daniel Rashid
Studio: Film Arcade

C-

As unlikely as it might seem, bigamy has provided fairly fertile ground for comedy writers over the years, so “Being Frank” is not exactly an outlier. But in spite of the presence of Jim Gaffigan in the title role, Miranda Bailey’s “Being Frank” is not much of a contribution to the peculiar subgenre.

As Glen Lakin’s screenplay, originally titled “You Can Choose Your Family,” opens (it’s set in 1992, presumably to avoid having to deal with the fact that today’s electronic systems would make leading a double life very difficult), we’re introduced to Gaffigan’s Frank Hansen, who runs a catsup company in upstate New York he inherited from his dad. His wife Laura (Anna Gunn) seems happy enough, though Frank’s very hard on his high-school age son Philip (Logan Miller), whose hope to go to NYU to study music (the kid’s an aspiring songwriter-singer, of course) he nixes, wanting the boy to go to State and follow in his footsteps at the factory. By contrast, Philip’s brainy sister Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander) seems pretty content, being especially close to mom.

Frank is constantly going off on long business trips and is about to embark on one to Japan. Since Laura and Lib are also planning to be away for a few days, frustrated Philip decides to accompany his pal Lewis (Daniel Rashid) on a jaunt to a nearby town, where they can have a good time while staying with Lewis’ uncle Ross (Alex Karpovsky). Ross turns out to be a zonked-out stoner, and more important, Philip stumbles on the fact that Frank’s there too. In fact, he’s having an apparently happy time with a second family: wife Bonnie (Samantha Mathis), athletic son Eddie (Gage Polchlopek) and pretty teen daughter Allison (Danielle Campbell).

Philip worms his way into this brood, pretending to be the son of Richie, a fictional best friend Frank has employed with both his families (just think of Algernon’s Bunbury). His intention, though, is really to blackmail his into financing his NYU tuition costs.

What follows is a broad comedy with some semi-dramatic digressions. The most notable of those is a bonding session between Frank and Philip during a fishing expedition, when the former explains how he was forced into bigamy nearly twenty years earlier—out of good intentions, of course. But most of the running-time is devoted to the equivalent of what might be described as a “slamming door” farce without the doors, in which Laura and Lib arrive in search of Philip and father and son have to collaborate to prevent the two wives from learning the truth. To that intent they recruit Ross, of all people, to clean up his act and impersonate Richie, with unexpected results. There’s a further wrinkle in Philip’s interest in Alison, who is, after all, his half-sister.

Perhaps if the script had been sharpened, the characters made more sympathetic and the direction were less flat-footed, “Being Frank” could have been amusing. As it is, though, it’s a frantic and desperate attempt to extract some laughs from a misguided premise. Gaffigan and Miller literally work themselves into a frenzy to put across the lame material, but to little effect. The supporting cast is pretty much wasted as well, though Karpovsky gets a few chances to show off his deadpan style (and, in an early scene, something else we could easily have done without). Yaron Scharf’s cinematography is at best workmanlike, and Jeffrey M. Werner’s editing is unable add any real verve to a plot that grows increasingly wearying as it rushes on headlong without leaving much of an impression.

Gaffigan is an amiable fellow, but frankly this vehicle doesn’t do him justice.

PAPI CHULO

Producer: Rebecca O'Flanagan and Robert Walpole
Director: John Butler
Writer: John Butler
Stars: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patino, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Wendi McLendon-Covey, D'Arcy Carden, Ryan Guzman, Brandon Kyle Goodman and Tommie Earl Jenkins
Studio: Blue Fox Entertainment

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One might admire his effort to treat a serious subject like grief—while also touching upon touchy issues like class and cultural differences in modern America—in a quirkily whimsical way, but Irish writer-director Joe Talbot’s heartfelt but erratic “Papi Chulo” proves a woefully misguided comedy-drama.

The picture begins when Sean (Matt Bomer), an ordinarily ebullient gay man, breaks down in tears during his weather segment on a local Los Angeles television station and is ordered to take some time off by his boss Ash (Wendi McLendon-Covey). He’s still suffering from the departure of his lover Carlos six months earlier, and obsessively calls the man just to hear his voice-mail message and leave reports on how he’s doing, though he expects no response. In the latest, he tells Carlos that he’s removed a large potted tree from the deck of the house they shared overlooking a canyon, the last remnant of their lives together.

Unfortunately, the pot leaves a circle on the deck very different from the wood around it, which had been painted blue, and so will remain a continuing reminder of the life Sean no longer enjoys with Carlos. So he’s off to the hardware store to buy a pint of paint to cover it, but of course when he brushes it on, the result is much darker than the weathered color elsewhere. Realizing that the entire thing will need to be redone, he decides to hire one of the dayworkers standing in the store’s parking lot to do the job.

The one Sean chooses is Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a chubby fellow who speaks as little English as Sean does Spanish. Still, he rambles on incessantly in English as the man tries to work, obviously more in need of somebody to talk to than a guy to paint his deck. He’s constantly bringing Ernesto glasses of water and insists he join him for lunch, and soon he’s inviting the man to join him for a boat ride, or a hike. Eventually he’ll even take Ernesto with him to a party, where his friends think they’re a couple.

Ernesto’s fellow dayworkers begin joshing him for his new friendship as well, and, as he reports to his wife (Elena Campbell-Martinez) in a series of bemused phone calls as the job goes on and on, he’s not so certain of what’s happening himself. Still, the curious relationship continues for a time until Sean makes a mistake and finds himself again totally alone. It’s here that Talbot finally reveals why he’s so despondent over Carlos’ absence, and why his relationship with Ernesto has become so important.

Unfortunately, it’s also at this stage that the film goes seriously wrong. Sean tries to return to work, only to find that Ash thinks it’s far too early. He endures what amounts to a psychological collapse, half farcically slapstick and half brutally tragic. He arranges for an anonymous hookup, but when the man (Ryan Guzman) comes calling, the visit is a poignant disaster. Things grow even worse when he goes searching for Ernesto at home, getting robbed and drunk in the process, and when he finds his erstwhile employee with his family and friends, it turns into a gigantic embarrassment, though one that leads to his finally coming to terms with what he’s suffered and deciding to move on in his life.

“Papi Chulo” undoubtedly means well, but ultimately it miscalculates badly in using Ernesto and his fellow Latinos as props—likable and supportive, but still props—in the story of a white man’s salvation. And while Patiño is genially low-key as Ernesto, Bomer comes on so strongly as Sean that he becomes a prissy stereotype who never convinces us of his character’s supposed depths of feeling. This is pretty much a two-hander, so the rest of the cast has little opportunity to stand out; but all of them fill their functional roles adequately, as does the technical team, with cinematographer Cathal Watters making good use of the Southern California locations.

As much as Talbot might want to do justice to the unlikely friends he’s created, in the end his film condescends to them both—and to us.