The tribulations of a small-time New York theatrical family whose long-buried secrets are revealed with seriocomic results are the stuff of “Before You Know It,” the debut film from the team of Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock. Its uneasy combination of moods and subplots makes for an experience that’s only fitfully amusing and unsatisfying as a whole.
The characters around whom the story revolves are the Gurner sisters, Rachel (Utt) and Jackie (Tullock), who have effectively subordinated their needs to serve those of their father Mel (Mandy Patinkin). He’s an egomaniacal actor who’s spent half a century mounting plays that he writes for himself in the tiny theatre in the basement of their brownstone—to scant audiences and virtually no recognition. Level-headed, unhappy Rachel, a lesbian thwarted in trying to have any kind of personal space, is the stage manager, while extrovert, self-absorbed Jackie takes the stage with Mel. She also is single mom to twelve-year old Dodge (Oona Yaffe), who lives with them all upstairs.
The fraught lives of the three adults, two of whom are actually pretty infantile—have affected poor Dodge so much that she has to see a therapist (Alec Baldwin, doing his thing in a couple of scenes). But things totally unravel when Mel has a fatal heart attack—the joke here is that he’s been rehearsing a death scene for his latest opus, and at first the others don’t know whether he’s really dead.
In any event, when his will is read, his daughters discover that their house has a co-owner, a woman whom they eventually discover is their mother Sherrell (Judith Light), whom Mel had told them was dead. She’s a long-time star on a TV soap opera, a diva who’s skating on thin ice because of her displeasure with the scripts and an inclination to alter her lines.
Much of what follows involves the relationship between Sherrell and her newly-found daughters, who are concerned that she might sell the house they intend to continue living in. Adding to the stress is the fact that Jackie feels left out because though she shares the acting bug with her mother, Sherrell gravitates toward Rachel, who proves skilled at rewriting the show’s scripts to her benefit. That leads to some embarrassing moments at an industry party where the sisters have to confront their simmering hostility—though in the end they work it out, and Rachel finally discovers the courage to move toward a romantic relationship.
The sole subplot of consequence centers on Dodge, who’s locked out of the house one day just as Charles (Mike Colter), an accountant who’s been hired to audit the Gurners’ finances, shows up. When Jackie protests that she can’t get home right away, he takes Dodge back to his apartment, where she bonds after some initial hesitancy with his daughter Olivia (Arica Himmel), and the two become fast friends.
There are agreeable moments in the movie, but they’re sporadic and fleeting, and the shifts between dramedy and broad farce are jarring. The performances are equally at odds, with Utt, Yaffe and Colter relatively restrained while Light and Tullock play to the rafters, and Patinkin (who has an inevitable ghost scene toward the close)somewhere in between.
Technically the picture is adequate given its obviously modest budget, with Jon Keng’s camerawork decent if unexceptional and Kent Kincannon’s editing only occasionally stuttering. Unfortunately Ryan Tullock’s score accentuates the film’s clumsier beats.
One can imagine the New York theatre crowd getting a kick out of “Before You Know It.” For the rest of us, though, it’s more trying than satisfying.