'The Mend' is a thrilling, hilarious look at embracing one's dark side
John Magary's debut feature, "The Mend," stars Josh Lucas as a hedonistic drifter who enables his uptight, newly dumped brother.
Director: John Magary
Stars: Josh Lucas, Stephen Plunkett
5 (out of 5) Globes
Ideally it’s best to head into “The Mend” knowing nothing. But if you must know, it’s about a straight-laced, uptight, not-so-quietly enraged lawyer, Alan (Stephen), spending not-so-quality time with his drifter brother, Mat (Josh Lucas), in the wake of a major break-up. You may be able to suss that out over the opening stretch, but it’s not official until around the 45-minute mark, which is up till then dedicated to things like a raucous New York apartment party that runs almost a full half hour and mostly populated by characters who will never again be seen. There’s a thrilling unpredictability — and an even more thrilling ability to cram the proceedings lousy with an anxious energy — that runs through the entirety of this on-edge blast of grouchiness, sarcasm, hedonism and full-blooded misanthropy.
Even when the plot has settled in, it’s still impossible to know where it will go next. Having head off — on two hours of drunk sleep — for a Canadian hiking trip with his live-in girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner), Alan soon abruptly makes an early return to his Harlem brownstone to find Mat hasn’t left. What’s more, he’s invited in Andrea (Lucy Owen), who in the opening minutes furiously kicked him out of her apartment, along with her young son. The foursome hole up in this increasingly messy corner of the world, which gets worse as the electricity has whimsically gone out. Alan, who had talked about proposing, descends into self-destruction, abetted by Mat, a dingy live-wire who gets boyishly excited over ice cream, sad bodega food and Alan’s good Scotch alike. Alan’s inner asshole, previously contained beneath a nervous exterior, comes boiling over in ways both harrowing and darkly hilarious.
“The Mend” is Magary’s feature debut, but though you can see the influences — it’s “Husbands” as crafted by French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin (“Kings and Queen”), with sprinkles of "Little Murders" and its portrait of a hostile (if not violent) NYC — they’re mixed in a way that creates something fresh and new and thrilling. Joe Swanberg explores superficially similar territory with his new “Digging for Fire,” but the actory improv feels gratuitous and sloppy and the insights pat and simplistic. “The Mend,” by contrast, is exacting, even as it takes a serious wallow in enjoyably bad behavior. The party is a “Laugh-In” skit of exacting one-liners plus a soundtrack of euphonious deep cuts. (Directors showing off their arcane playlists can be bothersome, but there’s no complaining when the mix boasts Brazilian jazz-funk, Christian prog rock and opera.) Magary’s shots are precise and thought-out — spaces explored with creeping zooms and a fair amount of old-timey iris shots.
It’s a tight command on the medium applied to a screenplay that loves to meander and loves to withhold information. The opening cuts from Mat and Andrea engaged in some aggressive foreplay to Andrea screaming bloody murder at him, over an infraction that is never revealed. When he returns to his apartment, crestfallen and ready to return to a larval state, Alan refuses to confirm that he’s been dumped, holding that off to well over the hour mark. Anything could happen, but the bracing-funny tone is consistent, even when it segues into a pitch black bit involving a dog crushed underneath a heavy bookcase. The nasty-fun highpoint is a leftfield run-in in Central Park with a poor P.A. on an after hours movie set, who receives drunken taunting from a beyond pissed Alan and Mat, resulting in a stolen walkie-talkie.
Josh Lucas’ rollicking turn may be the big selling point, and with good reason. Ages ago Hollywood tried to turn him into a standard pretty boy; he was even Reese Witherspoon’s dreamy love interest in “Sweet Home Alabama.” But Lucas was always too shady, too much of a smirking jerk, to be so boxed-in. In “The Mend,” decked out in a scraggly beard, his wrinkled face pocked with marks, he’s grown into the deplorable character actor he was born to be. But Plunkett is even better, his button-up appearance barely hiding his palpable anger. “The Mend” taps into the energy of letting one’s inner misery-machine out, indulging ravenously in both the pain and the freedom of being to thine’s own terrible self wretchedly true.