Some movies do not seem possible. Their very existence is an absurdity of hubris, their production something of a financial miracle. Or, rather, a financial eccentricity. The largest projects are the ones with the most to prove, disastrous flops like the Korean War epic Inchon financed by the Unification Church or that time Richard Burton played Yugoslav president-for-life Josip Broz Tito. Yet there’s a smaller version of this bizarre passion project, fantasies designed not to stroke the egos of cult leaders or dictators but Hollywood moguls. This time around we are in the hands of writer/director Victor Levin, Emmy-award winning co-executive producer of Mad Men and screenwriter of Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
The film is 5 to 7, a romance of almost unfathomably terrible proportions. The hero is Brian (Anton Yelchin), a young man without any sense of his own enormous privilege. Sure, he’s currently a failed writer. He’s also 24 years old, the son of very wealthy New Yorkers who presumably pay for his Manhattan apartment and, as we learn later on in passing, have already put away enough money for law school just in case. He sits at home all day re-writing his short stories and pasting rejection letters from literary magazines to his wall. The film gives him the luxury of near-constant voice over as the story begins, the first sign that Levin is entirely complicit in the narrative excesses that follow. Brian is the most inherently irritating protagonist of the year, but neither he nor his creator has any inkling thereof.
The drama begins when he meets Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe), a gorgeous French woman with exclusively pleasing facial expressions. They are instantly smitten with each other and begin a cautious, flirting acquaintance. Then she lets him know her situation: she is married, to a diplomat. They have something of an open marriage, but only from 5 to 7 on weekdays. It’s all very mature, very French. It also completely demolishes Brian because, as he explains, he has traditional American values and believes in the sanctity of marriage or something.
Hardly. It isn’t long before Brian gives in and meets the woman of his dreams at a fancy hotel and the sexual liberation is on. As it turns out, the young man is a natural between the sheets. Arielle tells him so in no uncertain terms because Levin’s script will waste no opportunity to fawn over its hero. No positive development in the entire film comes as a surprise, least of all the inevitable arrival of literary success for Brian. The crises are impressively predictable as well, and any awake audience member could correctly map out the remaining plot of the film after its first 20 minutes.
There’s a certain irony inherent in a script about a writer of short stories that lacks even the slightest suggestion of subtext. That old Creative Writing 101 aphorism, “show don’t tell,” is apparently well-beyond Levin’s purview. Characters constantly, insistently tell each other exactly what they are feeling. The audience is not allowed a single moment of contemplation. Valéry’s mistress and Brian’s eventual publisher, Jane (Olivia Thirlby), actually squeaks when she’s happy and then lets everyone know that that was her “happy noise.” Brian’s initial objection to adultery is given exhaustive discussion, as is his parents’ eventual horror when they meet Arielle.
His parents, by the way, are played by Frank Langella and a hilariously miscast Glenn Close. Langella is given as many classic “Old Jew” jokes as is temporally possible in his brief time on screen, including a somewhat shockingly long number about karaoke night that must have sounded hilarious in Levin’s head. The stunt casting goes well beyond actual actors, as well. New York City celebrities pop in and out, all playing themselves. Valéry and Arielle host a dinner attended by New York Philharmonic musical director Alan Gilbert, restaurateur Daniel Boulud and civil rights legend Julian Bond. Later on there is a cameo appearance by New Yorker editor David Remnick, who cannot possibly have read the script before agreeing to pretend-publish the work of this insufferable wet dream of a protagonist.
At the end of the film one wonders exactly what 5 to 7 is and how it happened. A few things are certain. It’s an extravagant male fantasy, complete with celebrity endorsements and beautiful women with very little emotional depth. Buttressed by an exasperatingly emotional musical score and a phobia of even the most subtly ambiguous of images and edits, Levin has produced a marvel of blissfully exuberant stupidity. It’s a cataclysm of nauseatingly blunt sentimentalism and persistent incompetence on a grand scale. We’ll either be talking about it for years, or never again. Here’s hoping for the latter.
The Upside: Nothing. Well, Frank Langella gets one funny joke.
The Downside: Everything. This movie is a self-indulgent, sentimental, incompetently-written disaster.
On the Side: Arielle was almost played by Diane Kruger, as FSR reported in October of 2012. Good call, Ms. Kruger.