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Form Follows Dysfunction

On its surface, The Daytrippers probably seems like your generic '90s American independent let's-get-our-friends-together-and-make-a-movie movie. Shot in Long Island and Manhattan in sixteen days for about a half-million dollars, with a cast including the inevitable Parker Posey and the almost equally inevitable Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott--where was Eric Stoltz?--it features a lot of people mouthing off to each other. And it takes place in a single day--just in case you forgot you were watching an allegory.

So the big surprise is that The Daytrippers, a first feature by 32-year-old Greg Mottola, is often fresh. At its best, it's like a homegrown equivalent of the small-scale, quietly observed Czech films from the '60s. Mottola has a fine, accepting sense of the messiness of workaday people's lives. As the movie bops along, those lives get messier and more unresolved, and that feels right. More than that, it feels just. Mottola honors his people by giving their confusions their due.

The characters in The Daytrippers are finding out about their predicaments as they go along. Mottola, who directed award-winning shorts as a film student at Columbia University, is finding out about the medium as he goes along. (What good filmmaker doesn't?) He retains more than a few of the flossier attitudes of American independent pap, but there's an openness to experience in what he does and, in the film's final sequence, an impassioned richness.

For reasons I can't quite fathom, The Daytrippers almost didn't get theatrical distribution in this country. Completed more than two years ago, it went begging for a buyer until Cinepix picked it up. The vaunted Miramax, which has released markedly inferior stuff in the same realm, didn't bite. Sundance, which gives awards to markedly inferior stuff such as Welcome to the Dollhouse, refused it. (Instead, it was the Grand Jury prize winner at Slamdance '96!) The film isn't especially difficult; it's funny, sometimes explosively so, and it has some first-rate acting. So why the cold shoulder?

The comic idea behind The Daytrippers is that dysfunctional families are the only kind of families. Dysfunction is the norm; everything else is an illusion. And it's also an illusion that families can heal you. Maybe they can, but what they do best is drive you bonkers.

Mottola captures the familiar craziness of a clan--the loudmouthed Rita (Anne Meara); her hunched, intimidated husband, Jim Malone (Pat McNamara); and their cowed, wised-up daughters, Eliza (Hope Davis) and Jo (Posey). We first see Eliza and her husband, Louis (Tucci), driving home from a family Thanksgiving dinner in Long Island. They have an easygoing sensuality together; when they arrive home and get right between the sheets, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

But we're being set up: Next day while Louis is at work, Hope finds what she thinks is a crumpled mash note to him--a love poem by Andrew Marvell, no less--and she does what for her is the logical thing. She runs her fears by her family.

Rita is a rowdy, direct-action matriarch, and she leads the hunt for the "truth." Packed into the beat-up family station wagon, the Malones, along with Jo's boyfriend, Carl (Liev Schreiber), show up at the Manhattan publishing firm where Louis works. Missing him there, they move on to Louis's likely trysting site in Soho, and then, after a wild-goose chase, to a book-signing party. As the evidence mounts about Louis's affair, the Malones, already frayed, start to unravel.

Mottola likes the idea that as the day deepens, everybody comes up against their worst fears. Eliza confronts the baselessness of her marriage; Jo is seduced by a high-toned novelist (Scott) and backs away from Carl; Rita's hold on her daughters and her husband is fractured. Her manic highs, which at first seemed so loony, become nightmarish.

That's a lot of ground to cover, and Mottola leaves too many tire tracks. The search for Louis and his lover is too transparently an "odyssey." The characters' turmoils seem hurried up for our benefit, as if we might lose interest in them otherwise.

With one exception--Carl--Mottola needn't have worried. His actors have the gift of appearing at the same time convivial and isolated, which is a perfect combo for this film. Crammed into the family car with its broken heater, they create their own heat. Mottola turns togetherness into a sick joke--it sounds good, but it's suffocating.

Coming up for air, the daughters go at life in different ways: Jo, the younger, is quicksilver and a touch bratty, while Eliza is almost serenely withdrawn. But they know what they're up against--with Rita, with Louis, with Carl. As often happens with siblings, the comic misery of their predicament bonds them.

Are the Malones believable? It's difficult at first to reconcile Jo and especially Eliza with their plebeian parents. But real families sometimes are like that. I've known clans with parents who talked like truck drivers and children who--in self-defense?--behaved like little patricians. The Malones' crazy-quilt temperaments are probably closer to the truth of American families than most of what we see in the movies.

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