Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Raise Your Glass to Duane Hopwood

Duane Hopwood
Written & Directed by Matt Mulhern
Running Time: 84 minutes
Originally Released: January 20, 2005 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * ½ (out of four)

The subject of alcoholism has been broached many times in cinema, but rarely has it been tackled with the grace exhibited by Matt Mulhern’s Duane Hopwood. Mulhern’s film shines most brilliantly for what it avoids—clich├ęs, melodrama, and inauthentic characters. Instead, Mulhern paints a picture of alcoholism that is all the more poignant because, like termites, what appears so innocuous on the surface is gradually destroying one’s foundations.

As the film begins, Duane Hopwood (David Schwimmer) is a married father of two, working as a pit boss for Ceasars Atlantic City. Late one night, Duane is pulled over on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. To make matters worse, Duane’s young daughter is sleeping on the floor in the backseat. Duane’s wife, Linda (Janeane Garofalo), who has heretofore endured Duane’s drinking habit with patience, files for divorce in an effort to protect her children. Meanwhile, Duane loses his driver’s license and is forced to bike to work for his 3 a.m. shift, the cold November weather notwithstanding.

The story doesn’t deviate much from there. Duane is just a person living his life, which feels a bit bleak at the moment. A smattering of poor decisions plagues him, many of which have nothing directly to do with alcohol. Maybe he shouldn’t have given the confrontational gambler a quarter out of his own pocket. Maybe he shouldn’t have lied to his boss about it. Maybe he shouldn’t have blown up at his ex-wife’s new boyfriend (The Office’s John Krasinski) for talking diet and exercise to Duane’s eight-year-old daughter. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so honest about his feelings for his ex-wife to the woman he has just been intimate with. The list goes on, but what makes Duane Hopwood so effectual is that, despite it all, Duane remains a wholly relatable character. He is not stupid. He is not pathetic. He is not inherently violent. As each scene unfolds, we can see ourselves behaving much as Duane does. Even his alcoholism is presented with restraint. Duane is not painted as a weak-willed individual who spends the first eight hours of his day moping and suffering from hangovers and the next eight indulging in frenzied fits of drinking. He is a competent and likable person, the kind of person you’d scarcely think had a problem if you weren’t privy to the more intimate details of his life.

As a case in point, there is one scene in which Duane attends his first AA meeting. The discussion leader asks Duane what brought him to the meeting. Duane says that both his judge and his ex-wife thought it would be wise. When the discussion leader asks pointedly if Duane himself believes he should be there, Duane hesitates. As filmgoers, we expect Duane to hesitate. What we don’t expect, and what again demonstrates Mulhern’s tact as a filmmaker, is that we too are unsure of how to answer that question. Does Duane need to seek help? Of course he does. And yet, by golly, he seems capable enough that you’d think he could do it on his own, if he really tried. That we can feel this way shows that Mulhern has tapped into something believable and real. Duane eventually tells the discussion leader that he doesn’t know if he needs AA, he just knows that he’s sad. As we have seen, it is a sadness that is pervasive, and yet largely manageable. No wonder it has proven so destructive. No wonder so many addicts, whose addictions are fueled by a sadness that is not so overbearing as it is persistent, fail to recognize that they need help.

Despite a commendable supporting cast, it is Schwimmer who gives a truly notable performance. For the first time, I’ve been able to watch Schwimmer in something other than Friends and not feel like I’m watching Ross. (And I’m including Schwimmer’s vocal performance as Melman the giraffe in Madagascar.) It says something that Schwimmer can effectively dissociate himself from his Friends persona while still playing a likable and fairly normal character. Within the subtle confines of the script, Schwimmer plays Duane as an emotionally complex human being. What makes the performance—and, admittedly, the script—so impressive is that Duane needn’t break down into tears or scream at the top of his lungs to let us know that he feels sadness or anger. He conveys his humanity as we all do, in simple and largely understated interactions with others. One such person is Duane’s casino-working friend and aspiring comic, Anthony (30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander), who eventually moves in with Duane. Anthony shares adequate screen time with Duane, but even lesser characters, such as Duane’s compassionate neighbors, Fred and Wally (Dick Cavett and Bill Buell), play their part in filling out Duane’s humanity.

In the end, the bulk of credit for Duane Hopwood’s success must again be given to writer/director Mulhern. From the opening scenes, Mulhern’s deft filmmaking skills become evident. The film begins with a montage set against the opening credits. It is via this montage that the backbone of the film is established—that Duane is a married father of two with a fondness for drinking that is not entirely under control. Most filmmakers would have, almost obligatorily, spent a good twenty to thirty minutes developing this backbone. Mulhern accomplishes as much in a mere two to three minutes. Rather than making the film feel rushed, however, Mulhern hereby demonstrates both his precision and his sensitivity as a filmmaker. He moves us right to the heart of the story, and as he does so, he respects our emotional integrity by eschewing extraneous scenes of the picture-perfect life going sour. This integrity carries over into the rest of the film; there is no emotional manipulation here. Whether Duane is expressing his love to his daughters, pleading for visitation rights from the judge, or asking for sympathy from his ex-wife, he is presented as neither too vulnerable nor too stoic. He is an adult, and he behaves like one, albeit one with a drinking problem. The error is in thinking that Duane Hopwood is only about the latter aspect of Duane's life.

1 comment:

  1. Your writing ability really shines in writing reviews. You have made me sad already about this show. And I really enjoy your comments on the director's approach, which adds a lot to the overall appreciation of the work.
    It's really good to see you doing these again.