My Effortless Brilliance is a low budget indie with elements of comedy, but I think it’s intended more seriously.
Early in the movie a small time novelist (Sean Nelson) makes a “Hey haven’t seen you in awhile; let’s get together” call to a friend (Basil Harris–no, that’s not Denis Leary; I did a double take too). The grim-faced friend soon arrives and tells him he’s an asshole and has totally failed him as a friend, and leaves.
The novelist doesn’t seem particularly surprised; clearly they have a history and he’s aware of what’s happened with their friendship or what he’s done to this guy. Perhaps he called him hoping it had blown over. Clearly it hasn’t.
He’s not particularly combative or defensive about it, but clearly it doesn’t sit well with him. We flash forward, and after a scene of the novelist awkwardly conversing with a fan–where they’re mostly talking past each other and self-consciously saying thank you a lot and not knowing how to end their interaction–he drives to a cabin out in the woods in eastern Washington where his friend evidently has moved in the intervening time.
He is there to surprise him, and presumably to try to patch things up with him. He is greeted warily. His friend allows him in, and eventually even accedes to his staying there for a visit, but in the beginning he meets the novelist’s nervous small talk and awkward witticisms with mostly stony silence.
Though he loosens up a bit as time goes on, he explicitly reminds the novelist at one point that he has not changed his feelings about his being a terrible friend, that nothing that’s happening now means that things are back to being fine between them.
The remainder of the movie is the two of them interacting in this cabin. There’s a certain “fish out of water” element of humor to the novelist’s discomfort with any non-urban environment, but that’s not developed in any interesting way and not much comes of it.
Really it’s 90% a psychological drama about whether and how these two will talk about and resolve their conflict. They both know that’s why the novelist is there, but it’s like the elephant in the room that they don’t bring up while they’re making small talk about chopping wood, cougars, and spiders, or just sitting silently.
Neither one seems able to just frankly speak what’s on his mind. The novelist’s verbal style instead is to keep up a superficial chatter. It’s an approval seeking style, where he tries to keep people entertained, and feigns interest and agreement just to be sociable. His friend at times indicates a certain disgust with the phoniness of that, yet he spends the bulk of the time in a brooding silence, which isn’t exactly frank and healthy communication either.
Even though the movie is unusually short–less than an hour and twenty minutes–it feels long because so little happens. It’s just these guys sitting around not communicating.
I get that it’s psychologically interesting at a certain level that they are right on top of each other and yet aren’t connecting, aren’t able to address the obvious issue at hand. But one wonders if there wouldn’t have been a way to convey that in a 20 or 30 minute short film perhaps, because stretched out to over an hour, this is just too slow and uneventful.
So I was mostly bored by this movie.
I will say, though, that toward the end, and then thinking back on it after it was over, I warmed to it just a bit, appreciated a little more the underlying tension of their situation.
Would there be a breakthrough? What form would it take? Would it culminate in a reconciliation and a stronger friendship moving forward, or a more definitive parting of the ways?
But mainly, what would bring about any such breakthrough or breakdown? Maybe it would be a sudden show of temper by one, which rouses the other enough to respond, and snowballs into a frankness that goes beyond their conscious control. Maybe the presence of a third party–for a few scenes, another fellow from the same part of the woods hangs out with them–would somehow change the dynamic between them so they could talk. Alternately, maybe what was needed was precisely for this other guy to leave so they could be alone. Maybe the heavy drinking they do on occasion would loosen them up and get them to drop their inhibitions about confronting the issues between them. Maybe some external event–like an attack by the rumored cougar–would somehow indirectly break the logjam and get them talking.
So not exactly edge of the seat suspense, but it’s actually kind of an important human situation people can find themselves in. And one that felt real the more I thought about it.
On the one hand, you want to say “Oh come on. Just have a real conversation and hash this out. I can’t believe they’re going to sit there talking around it indefinitely.”
But this kind of communication failure is not uncommon, especially with males. I’ve been in situations not at all unlike that, from both sides. I’ve known at some level that a person wanted to talk about something, but I wasn’t comfortable with it so I didn’t give any openings to go there. And I’ve wanted to talk about something and been unable to force it because the person just wouldn’t settle down and be real with me.
I feel like I’ve been in the second situation more, but that may be my imagination. Maybe I’m just more apt to deny it to myself or forget it when I’ve been the uncommunicative one avoiding our being frank with each other.
So I could feel the disconnect between these characters, the realization they had that what they were saying to each other had nothing to do with expressing their true emotions and really leveling with each other.
I had the sense toward the end that the movie might be headed for a disappointing finish, either some artificially happy ending, or a big “surprise” of some kind, some overly dramatic late plot twist.
The actual ending, the way certain things are revealed or not, resolved or not, didn’t blow me away, but I was relieved that it isn’t anything hokey like that. It struck me as consistent with the plot to that point and what we know of these characters. So acceptable anyway.
Overall this is a below average movie, really quite dull most of the way. I do think there’s some psychologically important and interesting things going on that are worth thinking about, and that keeps it from sinking lower in my estimation, but I can only give so many points for that.