“When do you want to swing by to choose your prints?”
Those of you that say a monogamous relationship isn’t possible, that you can’t live the rest of your life with the same person and seriously be happy, Monogamy is the film for you. As succinctly and authentically as it can, Dana Adam Shapiro’s film, (Oscar nominated director of the documentary Murderball), peers through the window of Theo’s life. The guy has it all: a beautiful fiancé, a self-employed photography job where he calls the shots, and an apartment in NYC with good friends in walking distance, one of whom owns a bar that he can frequent and enjoy evenings at. Somehow, though, it just isn’t enough, the pressure of existence is too much to handle and he lets it all slip away through paranoia, lust, and fear. Editor Mollie Goldstein, (a Rochester native), and co-writer Evan M. Wiener were gracious enough to partake in a Q&A session after their 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival screening, illuminating this as the central motif of the story. We all have some need to rebel and fight against a world keeping us down, so they sought to portray someone as free as can be, showing how sometimes one can never be free enough.
The film won the Best NY Narrative Award at Tribeca earlier this year for good reason as its criteria includes craft, acting, and consistency of vision, showing how the accolade was created with a piece of art like Monogamy in mind. Taking two up-and-coming actors in Chris Messina, (who I still can’t believe hasn’t broken out yet, he’s that good), and Rashida Jones, (given a role to excel in with the nuance she alluded to in “The Office”), the film pits them inside the New York City ‘ME’ lifestyle as the only two constantly looking at the others’ happiness first. It’s as though they don’t quite belong, a pair of star-crossed lovers that would feel at home in suburbia, staying sane and down to earth amongst the hustle and bustle of city living. Along with them comes a brilliant ability to make the frame come to life depending on what it’s depicting—kinetic and angular as Messina’s Theo rides his bike through the city, deliberate and technical as the audience peers through his camera lens at his latest subject, and softly full of sorrow when the reality of love’s hardships come to light, unavoidable and sadly allowed to flourish unchecked in involuntary self-sabotage. Throw it some stellar music tracks blaring to the cuts, including a cameo by Bobby Ray “B.o.B” Simmons in the most memorable juxtaposition of talent show tap with seedy, stalker photography, and no other film had a chance.
Perhaps I should get into a little more detail about this seedy photo work pertaining to a side job of Theo’s that breaks up the drab monotony of wedding gigs. Using the handle ‘Gumshoot’, he receives anonymous emails from people wanting to pay him to follow them around on a specific day, snapping candid shots in their natural habitat. It’s a strange job that only gets stranger once ‘Subgirl’ enlists his expertise. This sexy conundrum of a woman claws into the deepest recesses of Theo’s brain, permanently tattooing herself to the backs of his eyelids with her unabashed, public sexual acts, knowing someone is watching—not only reveling in that voyeuristic fantasy, but encouraging it in order to purchase the evidence as keepsakes of her indiscretions. Sometimes she has a wedding ring, sometimes she doesn’t; sometimes her partner does, and others he’s without as well. A mystery begins to build, hijacking his every thought as it takes hold, wrestling him down while his fiancé is laid up in the hospital with a staff infection, all but forgotten as he chases down this woman of pure sensuality. He decides to follow Meital Dohan’s Subgirl, basking in her unceasing libido, pushing away the girl that completes him, Jones’ Nat, because on the last time he initiated the desire to make love, she happened to want to take a shower first.
But the most intriguing fact of Theo’s transformation into this duplicitous figure throwing his life away is that Nat was okay with it all. Not only did she allow him to be ‘Gumshoot’ without a shred of distrust, but she even caught a glimpse of the first Subgirl go-round, asking to see more instead of turning in disgust with a request for him to stop. There is no way she could give him any more space than she already was—Jones’ Nat is the girl most guys strive to be able to find, that perfect mix of attractiveness, kindness, humor, and talent. It’s almost as if she is too perfect; the friendliness with her doctor and other men she meets mutates into flirting and a non-committal attitude inside Theo’s warped psyche. He begins to take all his own insecurities and self-hatred for being unable to break away from Subgirl and projects them onto Nat, turning this beautiful, sensitive soul into a common slut, forcing an image that doesn’t come close to fitting in order to separate himself from her more. Messina becomes Theo as he changes from a compassionate man in love—a guy who, when asked how long until the wedding, replies without hesitation three months, two weeks—to a possessed introvert, infatuated by a scenario he forms in his head about two people he has never met.
Shapiro and Wiener have woven a wonderfully compelling drama about the fissures that exist in any relationship, the ones worked on and overcome in order to prevent them from breaking into fractures causing cataclysmic damage. The story is pared down to its absolute necessities, telling their tale of romance and heartbreak. Goldstein spoke about all the extra Subgirl scenes they had cut after seeing early screenings of the movie, finding out that the true backbone wasn’t the mystery of adulterous deviants, but the constantly on the brink coupling of the two lead characters. By excising repetitious imagery of the stalker exploits, more time is allotted to Theo and Nat’s interactions and gradual descent into the reality of the situation staring them in the face. It brings in the comedic relief of friends Ivan Martin and Zak Orth, as well as their attempts to pull their buddy out of the black hole he’s sunk through, casting him farther out onto the isolated island of his self-loathing. There is nothing better than a long take to show emotion and nuanced performance, a technique used effectively more than once here, sometimes put to music, (a slow trek through the bar towards the end), and others left quiet as characters speak, (Theo and Nat at home after she returns from the hospital). This is a relationship and a true depiction of the work needed to be put in; sometimes love just isn’t enough.
Monogamy 8/10 | ★ ★ ★