Perhaps because it’s less airless than the suburban angst dramas of Sam Mendes and less smug than similar movies like Little Children (2006) and We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), I’m almost inclined to give Derrick Martini’s debut feature Lymelife extra points—almost. Then too, there are a couple of truly sublime moments that make the film stand apart (catch the shot of Jill Hennessy standing by the car with her umbrella, backed by the tacky house and the train passing behind it). But they’re just that: moments. And they’re moments in an often pretty sloppy movie, and this is made stranger—and sloppier—still since the film is supposedly drawn from the lives of Derrick Martini and his brother (and co-scripter) Steven.
The film makes a big fuss over the older Bartlett brother, Jimmy (Kieran Culkin), going off to war—in 1979. What war is that? There’s some mystifying talk about the Falkland Islands, but the Falkland War was a few years off and didn’t involve the United States in any case. So what on earth are the Martini brothers going on about? And if they can get something this simple this wrong, I’m not altogether certain how much stock to place in their powers of observation in other areas. How much should I trust their take on suburban malaise on Long Island in 1979?
The story focuses on two families: the Bartletts and the Braggs. The Bartletts consist of Mickey (Alec Baldwin), his wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy, Wild Hogs) and their sons, Scott (Rory Culkin) and Jimmy (Kieran Culkin). The Braggs are comprised of Charlie (Timothy Hutton), his wife Melissa (Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City) and their daughter, Adrianna (Emma Roberts, Hotel for Dogs). The Bartletts are more or less in the ascendant, owing to Mickey’s success at real-estate development, while the Braggs are in a less comfortable position, since Charlie has contracted Lyme disease. The families’ lives, however, cross in several ways—not in the least because compulsive womanizer Mickey is having an affair with Melissa. At the same time, Adrianna and Scott are possibly on their way to being more than friends.
Those are the dynamics of the situation, and they certainly offer opportunity for a good deal of drama of the kind generally associated with this kind of film—most of which is explored in more or less the same way this material usually is. However, there are also notable moments of dark humor that serve to make the characters more human and accessible than in many such cases.
The acting has much to do with this, especially from Jill Hennessy and Emma Roberts. Hennessy holds the film in place, truly breathing life into what could have been a fairly stock “wronged wife” role. She’s smart enough to know her own imperfections and the part they’ve played in bringing her marriage to the state it’s in. On the other hand, Emma Roberts truly gives the film its heart in a performance that shrewdly combines both the expected precocity of the “worldly” teen and the suggestion that this is in part a pose to shield her from the grimmer aspects of her life. She’s also the only person in the film—aside from Charlie himself—who can see the dark humor in some aspects of his plight, and realizes that he sometimes milks his presumed mental instability to behave outrageously without consequence.
All of this, of course, is used to a greater purpose in allegorical terms as a portrait of the tension that lies just beneath the surface of these “everyday” ordinary lives—a tension that must inevitably erupt. Some of this works, some of it doesn’t. The ending is one of the instances where it does, but you’ll have to see the film to find out what I mean by that. The problem, though, is that, apart from the somewhat surprising ending, Lymelife doesn’t bring much new insight to bear on the topic of the horrors of suburban existence. That it manages to do anything at all with the material without resorting to condescension and caricature is noteworthy, but whether that’s enough to warrant your time is a separate question. Rated R for language, some sexual content, violence and drug use.