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Jeff Daniels Crafts One Of His Best Characters To Date In “Guest Artist”

It’s a real crime that Jeff Daniels doesn’t have more awards on his mantle. To date, he’s never won an Academy Award, or even been nominated for one. Throughout his career, he’s done Oscar-worthy work on multiple occasions, but the Academy has repeatedly snubbed him. Now, showcasing his talents in a whole new way, Daniels is not just starring in a high quality new independent movie, he’s written it as well. Guest Artist, now in limited release and coming to VOD next week, is not just a great vehicle for Daniels (which it decidedly is), but a moving character study with a hell of an ending, to boot.

The film is a dramedy, pitting a grizzled veteran playwright in a battle of the mental wills with a young and optimistic fan. Joseph Harris (Daniels) spends his days in New York mostly drunk, avoiding turning in his latest work. Set to be put up in a small Michigan town, the disillusioned Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright arrives in the burg, hating every moment. There, he’s picked up at the train station by Kenneth Waters (Thomas Macias) and aspiring playwright in town who absolutely idolizes him. Late to pick up Joseph, he and Kenneth get off on the wrong foot, with the former filibustering in the station about the state of the world. Eventually, however his deep cynicism about his career and world-weary nature, as well as potentially his artistic insecurity, is challenged by Kenneth. The result is surprising and quite moving. Timothy Busfield directs a script that Daniels wrote himself, with cinematography by Wilson Coates Busfield, while Ben Daniels composes the score. Supporting players in the small cast include McKara Bechler, Richard McWilliams, and Erika Slezak, among others.

Jeff Daniels is riveting here. Not only is his performance among his very best, the screenplay has echoes of Aaron Sorkin to it. The way he makes his protagonist both deeply damaged and also incredibly compelling is something to behold. Any and all of his monologues are captivating, and while Thomas Macias’ foil is clearly meant to hold sway with you, as he’s the kind character, Daniels so consistently upstages him, your attention is never broken. In fact, during one sequence, when Macias has center stage and Daniels is largely off screen, the pacing is broken. Now, the scene itself, where Kenneth spends time at a store with a girl he used to briefly date, is very charming, but it either needed to go on longer or be cut out, entirely. By then, we just want more time with Daniels, so why he, as the writer, included it, is a bit peculiar.

Guest Artist benefits from director Timothy Busfield (a quality actor in his own right), who opens up what could be closer to just a filmed play. For a brisk 74 minutes, you’re just in the presence of Daniels’ Joseph Harris, almost exclusively. Busfield did opt to keep that one Macias-centered excursion, but that might have just been a matter of practicality, padding this out to a more digestible feature length. It’s the only real misstep here, and that’s even just a matter of personal preference. For the most part, Busfield focuses on Daniels and the results are splendid.

Next week, fans of Jeff Daniels have a real treat on their hands when Guest Artist hits VOD services. Busfield and Daniels take what could be a static and stoically stage-y production and breathe life into it. Sure, you’ll be reminded of stage shows, but that’s the point. It’s all in the execution here, and the duo really do execute it. If you love Daniels, you owe it to yourself to seek this one out, as it’s a showcase that the actor truly deserves…

Be sure to check out Guest Artist, out in limited release now and hitting VOD on July 21st!

(Photos courtesy of Indican Pictures)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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