USA, 2000. Unrated. 90 minutes.
Cast: Paul Hipp, Boyd Kestner, Bitty
Schram, Radha Mitchell, Alexis Arquette, Jonathan Penner, Nancye Ferguson
|Grade: C+||Review by Dana Knowles|
psychological thriller with black comedy undertones that appears–at first–to be a Neil LaBute-ish portrait of a very dysfunctional marriage, Cleopatra's Second Husband traces the odd trajectory of Robert Marrs, a photographic artist whose passivity is almost pathological. Oh, wait... did I say "almost"? Strike that. It is definitely pathological, seemingly impenetrable, and downright squirm-inducing. This is the story of a man who will accommodate anything, anyone, anywhere, anytime. Does he have a breaking point? If he's pushed to the point where he blows, how will he blow? Stay tuned.
Robert and his wife, Hallie (Paul Hipp and Bitty Schram) are a thirty-something couple about to embark on a month-long vacation from their suburban Los Angeles home. When a friend suggests that a she knows of a fellow who's relocating from New York and would be available to house-sit while they're away, Robert balks, but Hallie embraces the idea. We're no more than three minutes into the film, but we already know who will prevail, because Robert's subservience to Hallie's decisions has already been established with a few quick brushstrokes. She's a nagging shrew. He's a doormat. To make matters worse, she's obsessed with getting pregnant via a regimen that reduces their sex life to a tightly-scheduled, passionless, mechanical process that can only occur during her once-monthly ovulation cycle. What Robert really needs is a vacation from his wife, and–for his sins–he'll get one eventually. But I digress....
The house-sitter arrives with a girlfriend in tow, and Robert reluctantly hands his home over to them while Hallie impatiently barks variations on "let's go" from the doorway. Zach and Sophie (Boyd Kestner and Radha Mitchell) are a pretty couple, but they're slick in a way that instantly spells trouble. It's clear that they'll eventually manipulate and outwit the Marrs, whose street-smarts seem akin to those of Snuffleupagus. Not surprisingly, Robert and Hallie's vacation goes poorly, ending in conflict and an early return home, where they discover that Zach and Sophie have neglected their duties, crossed a few lines, and killed off Robert's tropical fish. Pleading homelessness due to the unexpected early return of the Marrs, Zach and Sophie convince Hallie to let them stay on for a week. Robert would like to object, but caves in to Hallie's unwarranted sense of obligation. Just as you'd imagine, the extended residence of their guests takes an ugly turn, followed by a downward spiral of major proportions. I'd say more, but....
Keenly focused on a protagonist who would disappear if he were any more insular or withdrawn, Cleopatra's Second Husband is not a film for the claustrophobic. All but a few scenes take place inside of the Marrs' home–adding further to its no exit feel–and the last act includes elements approximating the literal enactment of a claustrophobe's worst nightmare. Director Jon Reiss and cinematographer Matt Faw make the most of their limited budget with imagery that is often suitably atmospheric and always surprisingly slick, though Reiss' use of skewed angles and refracted compositions is sometimes too heavy-handed to achieve any effect beyond drawing our attention to his presence behind the camera. The best scenes are those where he shows restraint, and they do (thankfully) make up the majority of the film.
Though the story is deliberately narrow in its effort to pit specific personality types against one another with maximum intensity, the characters are a bit too schematic to resonate beyond what they're supposed to represent. Still, all of the actors acquit themselves well. Boyd Kestner uses his chiseled beauty to suggest a reasonable degree of charisma, but Zach–as scripted–never gets a chance to stray far from the realm of pretty-boy menace until quite late in the film. It's a pity, because a bit more charm in the early stages of his stay would make it easier to believe Hallie's immediate willingness to keep them in the house. Radha Mitchell is fine in the underwritten role of Sophie, a manipulative temptress whose capacity for malice does finally prove to be limited. Bitty Schram has the thankless task of bringing the shrill and loathsome Hallie to life, but she managed to grate on me instantly, so Schram must be doing something right.
As Robert, Paul Hipp manages to be utterly impassive without seeming vacant (and yes, that's a compliment). He's an infuriating character to watch, but Hipp keeps him just sympathetic enough to carry you through to the end. It's a difficult role, because Robert is the absolute center of the film, and there's almost no there there to hang onto. Robert wears a permanent poker face and shrinks from action so reflexively that he barely seems to exist. When you're not cringing on his behalf, you feel compelled to slap him. He's absolutely exasperating, but the relentlessness of his detachment is what makes him interesting and elevates him above the stock characters normally found in a standard domestic-nightmare thriller.
The Big Picture
Cleopatra's Second Husband is–in fact–a character study more than a thriller, and it (rather courageously) dares to take on a supremely annoying sort of human enigma: a man whose comfort zone precludes even the tiniest assertion of his own will. It's a worthy premise, and Reiss' script suggests some intriguing layers to this all-but-invisible man. Robert uses photography to compensate for his complete lack of control among humans, turning his camera on creatures that he can control: the dead and the trapped. And though he's a masochist by nature, his (repressed, but still existent) hunger for control manifests itself in a chillingly dispassionate form of sadism. It's a reasonably compelling portrait containing plenty of food for thought, but the air of unpleasantness is pervasive and becomes stifling after awhile.
With a bit more precision in the development of its peripheral characters and a more tightly-controlled sense of tone and atmosphere, the inherent discomfort of watching these people (Robert in particular) would work to the film's advantage instead of to its detriment. As ambitious as its intentions may be, this is not an easy film to watch because it doesn't build and sustain the necessary degree of hypnotic pull. Without that irresistible edge, following Robert's progression from one state of blank-faced misery into another until he finds the will to act calls for a level of patience and accommodation that would rival his own. I confess that I fell a bit short in that regard, though the film itself made me feel better about my failure to tolerate large doses of cruelty. (Irony!) With this sort of difficult material, the line between worthy attempt and fascinating exploration makes more difference than it probably should. Cleopatra's Second Husband falls squarely in the realm of worthy attempt, but short of the realm of fascinating exploration.
© August 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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