Friday, October 28, 2016

Let's Get Small: Netflix's Easy

Malin Akerman and Orlando Bloom in Easy.

The Netflix series Easy was created by the independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), who also directed, produced, and edited it, and is the sole writer credited on each of its eight half-hour episodes. It’s an anthology series set in Chicago, a collection of self-contained stories about the relationship and career problems of a couple of dozen characters, some of whom make fleeting appearances in one episode but may return to play a more prominent role in another. Many of the characters are involved in some kind of creative work, from acting or writing to setting up an illegal dare one say, “indie” brewery. And most of them are in their twenties or thirties and either just getting the hang of adult life or struggling with the conflict between reaping the rewards of committing to a long-term relationship or starting a family and settling into a rut and closing off other unexplored possibilities. (There are also a few older characters who are weighed down by regrets and blown chances: Jane Adams as an aging actress and Marc Maron as an autobiographical cartoonist who’s one part Robert Crumb to two parts Marc Maron.)

In terms of screen time, the major characters are the beer-brewing brothers played by Dave Franco and Evan Jonigkeit and their significant others, played by Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) and Aya Cash (You're the Worst). Jonigkeit plays the more grounded brother, who has a meditative, slightly depressive air and a baby on the way, and who says things like “You need to monetize this situation.” Franco is the attached but unmarried free spirit whose exclamation of orgasmic delight over everything from the news that he’s going to have a nephew to the suggestion to the prospect of starting “an illegal brewery!” are borderline terrifying. Swanberg lays out their different lifestyle in capital letters and underlines them with a black Magic Marker: Jonigkeit accompanies his wife to her sonogram appointment and checks his cell phone (“It’s just some business”) while she paints the baby’s room and reminds him that she wants to keep this space “a technology-free zone”; Franco sleeps on a mattress while, in another room, his girlfriend rehearses with her rock band.

Dave Franco and Zazie Beetz in Easy.

Jonigkeit sees the brewery as his last chance to become locked into the soul-destroying drudgery of his nightmare job before he becomes a daddy and the wall comes down. But his efforts to “monetize” their edgy new business venture co-operating with a reporter (Hannibal Buress) who wants to write a profile, looking for a big new space annoy and alienate his freakishly enthused boy-man brother, who wants to brew beer illegally for the love of it, man, and sees his fun project turning into a job. (Does it even halfway count as a spoiler that Franco’s commitment to a life of doing what he likes and keeping things low-pressure takes a hit when his girlfriend, who’s been feeling poorly, decides, what the heck, to use a pregnancy test that she finds taking up space in Franco and Aya Cash’s bathroom cabinet?) At one point, Aya Cash delivers a speech about how her reasonable concerns about money and responsibility she quit her own job when she got pregnant make her feel like “a stupid yuppie.” The two episodes in which the brothers figure aren’t the most engaging or affecting of the series, but they feel both vaguely searching and over-explicit in their explanations of what the characters are growing through, in a way that can make you wonder if Joe Swanberg, who’s directed and written seventeen feature films in the past ten years (along with the occasional TV gig and shorts contributed to anthology films), feels a little like a stupid yuppie creating a show for Netflix.

Swanberg is, along with Andrew Bujalski (who co-starred alongside Greta Gerwig in the first of Swanberg’s movies to get a real measure of critical attention, Hannah Takes the Stairs), probably one of the best-known of the directors who were tagged with the “mumblecore” label in the mid-aughts. (He’s certainly the most prolific.) Swanberg has always been dependent on festivals and the Internet and VOD to get his films seen at all, and Easy may well introduce his work to a much larger audience than he’s ever reached before, but I don’t think his chances of getting a call to take charge of a Marvel Universe movie are going to improve any time soon. (“Improve” might not be the right word, but I’ll bet you know what I mean.) A number of established, ambitious movie directors like Robert Altman, David Lynch, and Lars von Trier created their own TV series long before the advent of “auteur TV,” and it was often interesting to see how they adjusted their styles to the longer narrative forms the form made possible and the smaller, more intimate visual possibilities but Swanberg has never been a visual director, and the half-hour anthology format obliges him to tighten up. He’s always been a miniaturist, but his improvisation-style movies tend to ramble and hem and haw and often never come to a point.

Michael Chernus, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Jane Adams in Easy.

What’s most surprising about Easy in terms of seeing Swanberg adapt his style to the medium is that he must have felt obligated to try to bring each segment to something resembling a point, and the results feel formulaic. There’s still a fair amount of aimless rambling inside every thirty-minute package, but most of the “stories” are situation-comedy setups a couple of young marrieds (Elizabeth Reaser and Michael Chernus) struggle to reignite their sex life; a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) remakes herself in the mold of her new more-vegan-than-thou lover (Jacqueline Toboni); a woman (Aislinn Derbez) with a stable marriage to a steady, predictable fellow (Raul Castillo) is visited by an undependable but still charismatic former lover (Mauricio Ochmann) who’s an unwelcome reminder of the pleasures of her wild past that Swanberg and her actors are trying to infuse with some indie-film truth. The most interesting episode may be the least fussed-over and shaped, mostly because of the actors: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a young actress whose career is conflicting with her relationship (with Jake Johnson, who literally phones in, or Skypes in, his performance), and Jane Adams as the older colleague who’s been there before and wishes she could have advised her younger self on arranging her priorities. For once, Swanberg’s approach works pretty much the way it’s always supposed to: Mbatha-Ray and Adams are compelling and moving enough that a viewer can enjoy spending time with them without wondering if this is going anyplace.

The cast list alone testifies to how much actors love working with Swanberg: in what may be the show’s water-cooler episode, a happily married couple (played by Malin Akerman and Orlando Bloom), who’ve grown wistful about the opportunities for easy sex they missed out on by being single in the days before Tinder, entice Kate Micucci into a three-way, and the actors strip down and enthusiastically crawl all over one another, just for the sake of a thin joke. (The sound of crying keeps coming through the baby monitor, and the orgy participants take turns disentangling themselves and running upstairs to check on the little tyke.) Easy is watchable, especially compared to some of Swanberg’s movies. Thanks to the facile short-story format, you hardly ever feel as if you’re drowning in boredom, but you also never feel as if your mind is engaged, or if it should be engaged; for Swanberg, the price of the relative lack of boredom is the loss of the pretense that the audience is having the privilege of watching an artist with something more than crowd-pleasing entertainment on his mind. In his feature films, Swanberg has sometimes seemed to be a doodler who hoped to be taken for an experimental portraitist. In Easy, his doodling has a paint-by-numbers quality.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

No comments:

Post a Comment