I can't remember if was Tolstoy or Cavett who said every unhappy dinner party is unhappy in its own way, but it's true. And it's true times 10 or 20 — or infinity — in Coherence, a claustrophobic little puzzle that invites Schrödinger's cat to a cozy bread-breaking among friend-type people.
With a bright comet overhead sparking conversation (and perhaps disrupting electrical and electronic systems), four men and four women with some murky history (it's an I-can't-believe-he's-bringing-her sort of circle) meet for dinner in a Crate & Barrel-y suburban house. The jokes are wine-commercial-grade, the conversation banal and a trifle forced. More than a couple of guilty looks are exchanged without much effort at discretion, and you wonder from the start just why these people have bothered with a gathering when they could have stuck safely to Facebook. All are TV-guest-star attractive. None is distinctive in physical or intellectual appeal. These are the people you meet at other, bigger parties without asking for a number or a business card.
These basically stock characters — a feng shui-minded gossip, a washed-up actor who can't stay sober, a predatory ex-girlfriend, etc. — are about to be multiplied by some cosmological space-time rift. Is it the comet? Is it a group hallucination? Details stay soft, but the math works out to one part Luis Buñuel's Exterminating Angel plus one part Twilight Zone, divided by two parts Shane Carruth's Primer. Unlike Angel's trapped dinner guests, though, Coherence's can come and go. And they come and go and come back. But are they the same? And what happens if any of them comes face to face with his doppelgänger?
Maybe it doesn't matter. There are a couple of Boo! jolts for the audience in Coherence, but what you might want to yell at the screen is, "The other version of you is probably less annoying, and you should let your friends hang with that guy for a while!"
That could be the fault of the actors, who improvised the dialogue from an outline and who bring little to their roles beyond faces and voices that feel familiar. Most of the cast members do indeed have a lot of series-TV guest shots on their résumés, with Nicholas Brendon — saddled with the worst chores here — the most familiar, thanks to his time as Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The lack of chemistry between the story's couples, past and present, is distracting.
James Ward Byrkit, a key collaborator on Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean movies, makes his feature-directing debut here, from a story he plotted with Alex Manugian (who acts in the film). Shooting in his own home, he does smart things with low light and limited space. The production took just five days, and it shows, but in a good way. The performers aren't adept at conveying the tensions among their characters, but the movie overall delivers a sense that time is running out.
With a real script and sharper actors, Coherence might have been more than an intriguingly rigged movie that never catches the full wind of its best ideas. As is, though, it at least delivers enough midnight-movie tricks to merit seeing with a one-night-only audience.
All Joe Swanberg characters are unhappy in roughly the same way and in basically equal measure. They're not so much despondent as they are thwarted, in remediable quantities and in, say, a bit less than 90 minutes.
The one-man mumblecore factory follows up last year's three movies (including Drinking Buddies, which featured a bravely unlikable Olivia Wilde) with Happy Christmas, shot in his home around the holidays. With Beasts of the Southern Wild director of photography Ben Richardson the cinematographer here (as he was for Drinking Buddies), Swanberg this time works on 16 mm film, keeping the light low and the atmosphere wood-paneled. That gives Christmas a certain dissipated yuletide glow, as though you're in line at night to see a tired mall Santa in a John Cassavetes movie.
It's not that bleak — maybe Cassavetes' Santa can make a couple of presents appear after all — but it's not an upbeat scene, either. Swanberg is the family breadwinner, Jeff, who isn't quite killing it at work and who seems a little detached from his wife. But Happy Christmas doesn't give us much of Jeff (Swanberg wisely keeps himself offscreen much of the time), preferring us to know Jenny, Jeff's wayward sister. Anna Kendrick invests Jenny with a variation on her usual perky energy, and she's funny without ever saying anything funny. (Lena Dunham is amusing as Jenny's friend, never more than in the short scene that follows the end credits.)
The reason to stick with Happy Christmas is Melanie Lynskey. She's Kelly, Jeff's wife, a writer gone slack at the demands of recent parenthood. All of the dialogue here is improvised, and it mostly works, but Lynskey elevates the other performances.
There's not much going on in Happy Christmas, unless you count a pair of Jenny's embarrassing benders. This could be a couple of paragraphs from your college roommate's holiday letter. But the actors find ways to tell us who these people are.
The oddest film showing at Arts & Crafts is Frank, which puts a big papier-mâché head on a gruffly singing, gawkily dancing Michael Fassbender. The head — a wide-eyed, cartoonish orb modeled closely on a long-form stage prank undertaken by the late performer Chris Sievey (when it was on, Sievey called himself Frank Sidebottom) — could be art. It could also be a mask for mental illness.
For much of Frank, it's the only joke that works. The story is narrated by Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a version of the clever but sometimes tiresome writer Jon Ronson (the book The Men Who Stare at Goats and a couple of screenplays, including, with Peter Straughan, this one). Ronson worked with Sievey but is careful to distance the movie Frank from Sidebottom. One way he does this is by dialing up the slapstick; another is by making movie Jon both naïve and annoying. Gleeson is very good at making Jon very bad company, but the movie suffers for it.
Frank is uneven and draggy, and it's not very deep about two of the things it means to talk about: madness and artistry. But it also gives a perfect Fassbender one of the funniest moments I've experienced in a movie this year (maybe longer), a short sequence involving the drastic rewriting of a song at a moment's notice. More of Frank should have been this joyful and piercing at the same time, but at least we have what Fassbender's character calls "my most likable song ever."