There’s something to be said about movies that adamantly refuse to give you whimsical circumstances or endearing characters. There’s something to admire about a movie that refuses to pander to its audience, instead expecting a certain degree of work and a different kind of investment from them entirely. Such is the situation in the indie-family-drama Every Day, the feature writing/directing debut by Nip/Tuck producer Richard Levine.
Ned (Liev Schreiber) is a staff writer on a medical melodrama whose cheap theatrics are reminiscent of Grey’s Anatomy, and is growing increasingly sick of the limitations and deep lack of satisfaction experienced in both his personal and professional lives. His wife Jeannie (Helen Hunt, who really needs to be in more movies) has just moved her sick father Ernie (Brian Dennehy) across the country to take care of him at their home, but quickly realizes she is in over her head with the responsibility and the mess. Their openly gay son Jonah (Ezra Miller) is a high school student ready to start dating, but is suffocated by the overbearing paranoia and implicit homophobia of his father. The younger son Ethan (Skyler Fortgang) is suffering from, well it’s never made quite clear – either a dark chronic pessimism or performance perfectionism as a young violin player.
In an effort to escape from his unhappiness, Ned, under pressure from his boss Garrett (played here by a woefully underutilized Eddie Izzard) to add more manufactured drama to his latest script, is paired with the stunning Robin (played by the always-stunning Carla Gugino), with whom he eventually and predictably begins an affair (why else plant an attractive female character in a lonely man’s office?). During one scene early on in their affair, Ned and Robin act in a game of doublespeak, debating whether or not the main character should cheat on his wife. Ned is worried that the audience would hate the character for doing so, but Robin argues otherwise because she believes people would relate to it having wished they had done so themselves. This oddly meta-critical scene within the film acknowledges the potentially repellent nature of its characters within (or, more accurately, of its central character), and positions the audience as those with a choice to reject his actions or attempt to relate to him on some level. The film knows the gamble it takes. The problem with Every Day is that it doesn’t take a third major element into account in the film/audience relationship equation: complete apathy.
The reason Every Day isn’t a good movie has little to do with its main character being selfish, irresponsible, dishonest, paranoid, intrusive, self-righteous, and occasionally stupid – it’s that all these aspects of his character (and, by extension, all the film’s characters) are incredibly underdeveloped. From the very first scene we see Ned annoyed with his life, reluctantly leaving the light on for his too-old-to-sleep-with-the-light-on son. This is a tough place to start with a character, especially when telling the story of a family in decline or a family falling apart. How are we to know the stakes in Ned’s marriage being in jeopardy? How could we see this as anything other than the inevitable dissolution of what, for all we as the audience know, was always an unhappy marriage?
It’s okay to start off a character as annoyed with life, but this is Ned’s mode throughout the running time of the film. The surrounding characters of Every Day are equally one-note, playing one action or one emotion that only reiterates itself in other ways rather than changes or grows. Jeannie is constantly victimized, both by her husband’s absence and selfishness and her father’s reluctant codependency, but we know nothing about who she really is or was before the moments she appears in this film. Jonah is equally victimized, at once by his father’s prejudices and later (surprisingly) with the film’s own affirmation of the father’s homophobic fears. Robin’s presence is to be mere temptress, nothing more or less, whose motive for sleeping with Ned is justified by her fuck-it-all life philosophy, thus making Ned seem stupid for not seeing through the character’s vapidity in sleeping with what is essentially – in both the world of the film and in terms of character development – a piece of cardboard.
The movie’s potential stands right there in front of us. I can’t say much for the quality of Levine’s other work (I never watched Nip/Tuck), but he has cast some truly talented actors and actresses, some of whom we rarely see onscreen. Every Day sees itself as more complex, more genuine, and more real than the manipulative drama of the medical show Ned writes for, yet it’s a film that often attempts to express the nuances of a typically unhappy brand of living rarely shown onscreen with a sledgehammer, suffering some of the very dramatic storytelling flaws its meta-critique attempts to lampoon. But then the film awkwardly attempts a return to subtlety, but lazily so, solving major plot problems with the all-too-convenient story loopholes of attempted ambiguity and denying its audience the real conflict that such circumstances deserve.
On the Upside: Great cast in a film that is at least aspirationally ambitious and different.
On the Downside: Just about everything.
On the Side: Levine was a writer/producer on the short-lived show Stark Raving Mad starring Tony Shaloub and Neil Patrick Harris, which I think I might be only one of five people who found funny.