Sour, acidic leading characters in cinema are difficult to pull off. Audiences are already inured to charming, heroic protagonists and often repelled by their opposite. But Woody Allen managed unlikable characters for years, Noah Baumbach has successfully taken that mantle, Alex Ross Perry does a wonderful job of it in his latest film, and the delicate balance is usually either a charismatic lead that offsets the corrosiveness (Jason Schwartzman in “Listen Up Philip” for a very recent example), or a performance so unflinchingly committed and toxic they becomes utterly captivating (Nicole Kidman in “Margot At The Wedding” or Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County" for a recent example).
First-time feature-film writer/director John Magary attempts this tricky feat with his debut indie "The Mend," and mostly misses the mark with irredeemable, unlikable and hopeless characters you don’t want to spend a second more with than you have to. Anchored (at first) by Josh Lucas—who plays the aimless, couch-surfing and cantankerous Mat on the dying cigarette butt end of his 30s—the performance is committed, but not especially compelling, and certainly not well-rounded or pleasant in any sense of the word.
One night in Harlem, the damaged and unpleasant Mat—seemingly out on yet another bender that is his life—crashes a house party that turns out to be the fete of his estranged brother Alan (Stephen Plunkett). Of course this unexpected reunion takes place just days before Alan is heading out for a long-planned vacation with his live-in girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner from “Frances Ha”). Their relationship is much more tenuous than Alan realizes and Farrah soon bolts. When Alan returns home from his aborted vacation, he finds his apartment in squalor and hijacked by the irresponsible Mat, Mat’s kooky girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen), and her son from another marriage (Cory Nichols).
With the power out, and the apartment resembling a claustrophobic pigsty, the ineffectual Alan—who still hasn’t explained what went wrong on vacation (he was supposed to propose)—can’t kick out his unwanted houseguests and a rotting, unhealthy dynamic festers. Alienated from his more introverted brother and the tenancy on his relationship with Andrea shaky at best, the name of the game for Mat and this new eco-system of people is essentially dysfunction and characters trying to tolerate each other’s exasperating idiosyncrasies (of which the drunken, unhinged, unsocialized Mat has many of).
Muddled, with little forward narrative engine (that first act party goes on forever too), the aimless ‘Mend’ then acts as a kind of swampy chamber play cum middling character study; three characters and a child stuck together going nowhere kind of talking out their respective issues. In the end, “The Mend” is about brothers and ultimately about Alan’s story of getting past his family dysfunction, and his hopelessly incorrigible older brother.
Deeply unfocused, the film has major point of view issues too. “The Mend” initially purports to be the story of Mat and his damaged journey to nowhere, but then shifts over to Alan’s viewpoint. At almost two hours in length, you know you’re in trouble when an hour into the movie you don’t know which character’s point of view you’re supposed to be following, let alone whether you should empathize or at least understand it. Lucas' drifter character is essentially a single-note of anger issues and he never changes: and this is when we realize, he's really not the movie's lead.
Ill-defined, overlong and wandering with unlikable leads (even Alan is too feeble and useless to sympathize with), "The Mend" would be a disaster if it weren't for the fact that the lack of vision is marginally absorbing in a kind train wreck, “will this movie ever reveal what the hell it’s about?”-like manner. The score in particular—odd, atonal cello flutters and buzzing notes here and there—is either the worst score an indie film has boasted in recent years or the most strangely inspired and atypical. In truth, it’s both ballsy and yet totally unfitting. And part of the reason the film is so enervating is that its indolent score adds to its mostly listless rhythm.
In a similar manner, so committed to itself, one can’t quite pinpoint if the lack of real narrative is the point and this dark marsh of torpor and apathy is intended or if this is just first-time filmmaker problems with tone and pace (probably the latter, but there’s a mild argument to be made for the former). Co-starring Sekou Laidlow, Louisa Krause (who you wish stuck around longer), Sarah Steele, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Austin Pendleton as various friends and partygoers, “The Mend” is in much need of repair. A rehauled score and edit could salvage it (this movie has no business being 10 minutes shy of two hours), but what Magary’s film unfortunately needs is probably more renovating overhaul than minor patch-up. [D+]