REVIEW: Love After Love [2018]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


Rating: NR | Runtime: 91 minutes | Release Date: March 30th, 2018 (USA)
Studio: IFC Films
Director(s): Russell Harbaugh
Writer(s): Russell Harbaugh & Eric Mendelsohn

“She was a person of real consequence”

A father is sick and then he dies. There’s nothing too original in that progression of events or in how those left behind cope. Sometimes this type of tragedy makes people retreat within themselves and others see themselves lash out for attention. Sometimes it’s a foregone conclusion loved ones prepared for in order to be able to move on without too much struggle—viewing the sadness not as a thing to solve, but one to accept. Russell Harbaugh and his co-writer Eric Mendelsohn touch upon all three in their film Love After Love thanks to their having written three family members in mourning. The deceased’s sons Chris (James Adomian) and Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) and wife Suzanne (Andie MacDowell) find themselves bent, broken, and sad respectively. But life continues.

I say continues rather than evolves because Glenn’s (Gareth Williams) death doesn’t actually change things. We meet these characters while he’s alive and entertaining family and friends at a large get-together at their home. Suzanne is as smitten as she always has been—her beau did turn her onto monogamy after a previous open marriage. Chris is a goofball with insecurities as the self-proclaimed “screw-up” of the family. And Nicholas is an irredeemable human who is even more insecure than his brother as evidenced by an unhealthy attachment to his mother, an unhealthy obsession with needing his girlfriend (Juliet Rylance‘s Rebecca) to love him, and an unhealthy desire for any other woman willing to sleep with him. These descriptions don’t shift; they’re merely confirmed by subsequent actions.

So what does Love After Love deliver? Performances. Harbaugh and Mendelsohn are less interested with plot than creating an environment with which to let their characters screw up. Because let’s be honest: if Glenn didn’t die of an illness today, he was going to die. Parents die and men usually do so before women. I’m not saying this trio wouldn’t have imploded in the same way had he passed of natural causes, but the fact that they had to care for him as he lost control of his body amplifies the emotional and psychological toll. It pushes Chris to get angry when he’s drunk. It pushes Nicholas to seek out the warmth of Emilie’s (Dree Hemingway) bed instead of Rebecca’s. And it puts Suzanne on edge with grief.

The last two-thirds of the runtime is therefore how this heightened state of being affects their actions, reveals regret, and assuages guilt. Chris apparently starts to question his own mortality—I say apparently because he’s mostly used as comedic background noise until an out-of-nowhere stand-up routine that should be heartbreaking in its catharsis if we were ever given the impression that caring about him as a three-dimensional character was a goal. Nicholas finds himself drowning under the idea of love to fill a void within his soul that’s been there for a long time, constantly discovering new ways to push all who reciprocate his love as far away as possible. And Suzanne looks to reclaim her sexuality despite feeling as if doing so betrays her husband.

Time travels without demarcation. Events are mirrored in dialogue (“Do you hate me?”) and visuals (intertwined naked couplings), sexual partners change, and relationships end and begin in the space between. We move through their lives as resentment rises to turn easy smiles whenever Nicholas and Suzanne meet into scowls. Embarrassment escalates as everyone attempts to tiptoe around the deeper-seeded issues this family possesses beyond their shared heartache. And finally things shift into disappointment whether earned or not because projecting one’s pain onto another via passive aggressive childishness is easier than embarking on a worthwhile confrontational conversation. But while it all feels authentic, it’s tough to discern how we’re supposed to react. Should we feel as sorry for Nick as we do the others or can we hate him?

The answer is obviously the latter (we can do whatever we want) and that’s good because I did hate him. But my ability to do so didn’t make me want to open myself up to the family’s drama. The problem is that Nicholas is front-and-center, more so than Suzanne. He’s our focal point and as a result the driving force propelling the story forward. His actions aren’t the only things that make his filling that position tough to stomach, though. The constant juxtaposition between him and his mother do too because she does everything right that he does wrong. Suzanne becomes a pillar of dignity overcoming cautiousness to accept the reality that she didn’t die with Glenn. She gazes at the future while Nicholas proves anchored to the past.

And that contrast is worthwhile, especially as performed by O’Dowd and MacDowell. They show us how selfish characters react to a tragedy that should transcend them and how they can do so in very opposite ways. But that stark honesty can feel overly heavy. There’s not much wiggle room to interject meaning beyond their reactive self-loathing and destructive natures. We’re simply witnessing a slice of life that may feel familiar to some and insufferably depressing to others. I’m happy that Harbaugh and Mendelsohn never try to push a happily-ever-after narrative upon them since they all need more growth to earn it in the days following the film’s ending, but too many good people get burnt to care about the burners’ ultimate wellbeing in the aftermath of those setbacks.


photography:
[1] Andie MacDowell as Suzanne in Russ Harbaugh’s LOVE AFTER LOVE. Photo by Abbot Genser. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. A Sundance Selects release.
[2] Gareth Williams as Glenn and Andie MacDowell as Suzanne in Russ Harbaugh’s LOVE AFTER LOVE. Photo by Abbot Genser. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. A Sundance Selects release.
[3] Andie MacDowell as Suzanne and Chris O’Dowd as Nicholas in Russ Harbaugh’s LOVE AFTER LOVE. Photo by Linda Källérus. Courtesy of Sundance Selects. A Sundance Selects release.

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