Tribeca Film Festival: “Murderball” Director’s Feature debut

By Scott Feinberg

On Saturday evening, “Monogamy” (video preview) — the feature debut of Dana Adam Shapiro, who won an Oscar for co-directing the great documentary “Murderball” (2005) — premiered at the Borough of Manhattan Community College as part of the ninth annual Tribeca Film Festival. Ironically, it followed a screening at the same location of a new documentary about New York’s disgraced ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer, but I digress…

The film stars Chris Messina, the oblivious bridegroom-to-be in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008) and neglected husband in “Julie & Julia” (2009), and Rashida Jones, the wife in “I Love You, Man” (2009) and regular on TV’s “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” as a hip, modern, engaged couple who learn some unsettling things about each other as their wedding day nears.

Messina’s Theo and Jones’s Nat live together in Brooklyn. He’s a frustrated artist, barely makes ends meet as a photographer who gets most of his work taking wedding photos for other couples, but eventually creating a side-business called “Gumshoot” in which he is hired by clients to covertly photograph them throughout the day. One, a beautiful young blonde who turns out to be an “exhibitionist,” tempts his wandering eye, which is perhaps more inclined to wander than usual because Nat, of late, is less inclined to meet his animalistic hunger for sex. (Think Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” only wearing a dog mask left over from Halloween.) For Theo, what begins as an erotic curiosity evolves into a peeping-tom obsession that causes him to neglect his fiancee, even when she is hospitalized with a staph infection. Little things (forgetting to bring her guitar to the hospital) take on bigger meaning (perhaps even overdramatically), and the couple soon find themselves in peril.

In Messina’s highest-profile roles heretofore, he has, quite frankly, specialized in playing nebbishes (who, several friends have independently mentioned to me, chew food like a cow), so I was rather surprised to see him playing a psychologically-complex, sexually-assertive, rough-around-the-edges man (who, I must admit, chews food like a cow) — and quite impressively. In fact, he somewhat reminded me of a young Gene Hackman, who, you may recall, conducted some surveillance of his own in “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Conversation” (1974).

As for Jones (who, incidentally, is the daughter of the musician/record producer Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton), she definitely possesses the beauty and magnetic quality that stars are made of. In this particular film, though, most of the meatiest material belongs to her co-star, and she is primarily called upon to sing a little, cast suspicious glances, and affect disappointed pouts — each of which she does, I might add, nearly as alluringly as my personal favorite singing, mood-swinging cutiepie, Zooey Deschanel.

A few other quick notes: Cinematographer Doug Emmett deserves special mention for creating a cool documentary-look to the film, not unlike that of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” (2009)… The film runs a little longer than it needs to, and if I were Shapiro I might consider eliminating unnecessary elements like a horny hospital doctor and a single friend’s cute young daughter, neither of which add much if anything to the story… Some big names came out to support the film at its screening and/or after-party at Beba at 71 Spring Street in Soho — among them, ex-couple Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, “Star Trek” (2009) cast-mates Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, Selma Blair, Mamie Gummer, Tom McCarthy, and Scott Speedman.

Here’s video of the post-premiere Q&A with the stars/director/producers/crew:

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