Neophyte writer-director Brooks Branch’s mid-life crisis movie—in which an architect gives up his job, and his family, to work out his psychological trauma by writing an autobiographical play–is authentic in one important respect. It’s set in 1979, back when a non-musical, even one as wispy and obvious as that penned by the protagonist, might still thrive on Broadway. That could never happen in the age of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John and “Wicked.”
In other respects, too, “Multiple Sarcasms” has virtues. Some of the dialogue has a credibly naturalistic ring to it, and it’s delivered by an impressive cast. Although he overdoes the scraggly befuddlement and has one particularly poor drunk scene, Timothy Hutton does yeoman work as Gabriel, the troubled husband and father, and Dana Delaney and Mira Sorvino are fine as his brittle wife and the best pal he’s always actually loved, respectively. India Ennenga joins the growing ranks of talented child actions as his loving daughter Lauren—she shows a lovely unaffected manner—while Afro-coifed Mario van Peebles and stalwart Stockard Channing have fun as Gabriel’s gay work pal and his hard-as-nails agent.
But watching Gabriel trudge wearily through his journey of self-realization proves a long slog indeed. One of the failings of this sort of picture is that it never successfully dramatizes his creative process; one sees him occasionally plunking keys on his old typewriter, but it always seems a desultory business, and the employment of a tape recorder on which he gives reminders to himself is a feeble crutch (we hear him saying of a sequence involving his daughter, for example, that he should write it from her perspective—would any father need such an instruction?). Branch attempts to jazz up the effect by inserting surrealistic dream sequences (the most memorable involving that episode concerning Lauren experiencing her first period), but they’re simply garish, lacking the Fellini-esque quality the director’s straining for but doesn’t achieve.
Then there’s the end, where we see a scene from Gabriel’s play being performed before an appreciative audience (the raves from the critics insuring a packed house). Of course what appears before us is a feebly reconceived version of an important moment we’ve already witnessed in its “original” occurrence, played in an idealized form with the writer-as-narrator actually appearing along with the characters and engaging in conversation with them. We’re supposed to believe that this frail conceit elevates the material to a profundity that would touch and teach viewers. But we remain unconvinced.
That’s because at his core Gabriel comes across, despite a bedraggled charm that makes Hutton seem more and more the image of his late father Jim, as a smugly self-centered fellow who will sacrifice everything and everyone around him fort his own needs. At the end we’re meant to celebrate his triumph, but it’s a triumph of egotism at the expense of the people around him. They’re all mere appendages to him. There’s a selfishness at the center of this story about individual liberation that’s actually unsettling.
Technically “Multiple Sarcasms” is just okay, though one has to credit production designer Sharon Lomofsky, art director Peter Baran and costume designer Kitty Boots for the convincing period feel they’ve fashioned. Perhaps the idea was to mimic the slightly ragged appearance of films of the seventies themselves—which would explain Jacek Laskus’ rather drab cinematography; and if so, the makers have succeeded. What doesn’t succeed is Branch’s habit of dropping in allusions to movies and TV shows of the time to serve as short-cut descriptive devices. The most obvious is to the 1979 Alan Pakula film “Starting Over” as the catalyst of Gabriel’s transformation, but apart from a scene showing him watching it in a grubby theatre, it’s hard to believe that any of these people watch movies or television at all. They’re all much too busy drinking wine (somebody’s always got a glass) and navel-gazing.
And that’s what Branch seems to be doing in “Multiple Sarcasms,” too (the navel-gazing, not the wine-sipping, though a few stiff belts might have improved things). As a result the picture might serve a useful therapeutic function for its writer-director, but for the rest of us the exercise in self-examination will have a much less beneficial effect, unless you suffer from insomnia.