' ' Cinema Romantico: Union Square

Monday, April 15, 2013

Union Square

In the opening stanza of “Union Square”, Mira Sorvino, once upon a time an Oscar-winner who has since gone missing-in-action-in-plain-sight by starring in films you’ve never heard of like “Angels Crest” and “Attack on Leningrad” the last few years, will make you so anxious and uncomfortable as to leave you twitching. I mean this as a high compliment. This first fifteen minutes is extraordinary cinema, not necessarily because it revolutionizes but because what it is doing it does as well as can possibly be done. Sorvino's Lucy thunders into her sister’s pristine Manhattan loft, clamors in a voice that is pure screech about god-knows-what, gulps organic vodka gimlets and crashes right there on the prettified couch her sister wants to keep in mint condition. That Lucy is a train wreck is clear and this is her rumbling right off the tracks.

To heighten its effect, for most of this fifteen minutes we don’t even know that Lucy is related to Jenny (Tammy Blanchard). Lucy more or less forces her way in, employing the apartment as a sort of stage to unleash a torrent of discombobulation as poor Jenny is left cowering off to the side. Throughout we can sense her wanting to scream “What the hell are you doing here?!” but her nature clearly is to withdraw and, besides, she could never get in a word in edgewise. She feels trapped, but I felt liberated – it’s the movie huffing and puffing and trying to blow you down. It succeeds.

Eventually it picks you back up and background information is parceled out according to the characters rather than script dictums. The sisters hail from the Bronx but have long been estranged for reasons never specifically addressed. If they hail from the Bronx, we wonder, why is Lucy’s accent so obvious and Jenny’s tucked away? Because Jenny has purposely tucked it away, revealing that she has told her fiancé Bill (Mike Doyle), kind if dull and hyper-focused, with whom she runs some sort of vegetarian food company, that she is from Maine. Jenny, in fact, has gone longer not seeing her mother than her sister and Lucy is partly here to explain their mother has died.

Yes, yes, that sounds like gasp-inducing, “whaaaaaaa?” story pivot but that’s not how “Union Square”, written and directed by Nancy Savoca, her first feature in nearly 10 years, treats it. The moment is not built to, it is just dropped in all at once and without warning – as organic as that tofu Jenny makes Lucy eat.

There are further secrets, of course, waiting in the wings which will not be revealed in this review. And because the film is set around and then on Thanksgiving this means these secrets must be spilled around the table while eating turkey – or, vegetarian lasagna – which is a melodramatic story device which is excused because of The Moonstruck Principle (which stipulates that Italian families are allowed to spill secrets at the dinner table). More problematic is that the film, which is brief to begin with, seems in need of a stronger bridge from its first two acts to the confessional portion.

This is far from a fatal issue, however, and by then the film had won me over anyway, mostly on the strength of its dueling lead performances. Sorvino is exemplary, repulsing us even as she draws us in, a loudmouthed tornado of selfishness, self-doubt and girlish enthusiasm, but Blanchard, who does not steal the film so much as share it, is a perfect counterpoint. She positively exudes someone whose lid is screwed on far too tight and as much as we desperately wish for Lucy to reign herself in we wish Jenny would open herself up. Outwardly they so often don’t seem like sisters because Jenny has distanced herself so much from the family brand. But look more closely and you can see the exact same insecurity lurking at each woman’s core. They are so much alike they have gone to the extreme in opposite directions.

Jenny, to quote Neil McCauley, is a needle starting at zero going the other way and as “Union Square” opens that is precisely what Lucy is doing too. But ultimately the eternal truth is upheld – you can lie, deny, change, and run away but you are who you are.

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