Pictured: 'Downstairs? I'm looking upstairs - strictly loft apartment.' Diana (Zosia Mamet) and Ben (Matthew Shear) in 'The Boy Downstairs'. written and directed by Sophie Brooks. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
As I begin my third year at looking at feature films directed by women, I really want the first film in the new series to utterly justify my focus, to be the benchmark against which other films can be measured.
The Boy Downstairs is not that movie.
The purpose of this study is to prove that women directors are just as interesting auteurs as men, that their work connects with an audience on an emotional level, that the only reason women directors aren’t more widely known as that their films rarely get shown in multiplexes, or that women aren’t regularly given franchise movies to direct or, if they happen to arrive on a franchise, they are replaced by a man for the sequel (Penelope Spheeris, Wayne’s World, Catherine Hardwicke, Twilight) and that they are equally talented and offer safe pairs of hands. At some point, if industrialised filmmaking continues (as opposed to folks just picking up cameras and making films with their friends) I would like directors to be cast in a gender neutral way. There will always be directors better at making certain kinds of movie than others – I wouldn’t hire Oliver Stone to make a romantic comedy or Woody Allen to make a conspiracy thriller – but genres should not be the exclusive province of one gender. Also, I want to be able to look forward to the next film by a woman director and then see it. There are too many examples of women directors forced to work in television as opposed to telling their own stories. It is fair to say that television rather than film is becoming more gender neutral, but directors work within an established format. I have yet to read an essay entitled ‘the aesthetic stylings of Pamela Fryman’, the Emmy award-winning Ms Fryman having directed all but twelve episodes of the television series, How I Met Your Mother between 2005 and 2014 – that’s 196 episodes, according to Wikipedia, but I could go through the box sets to check. Incidentally, she has also directed episodes of Frazier and The King of Queens. She is almost as ubiquitous in the sit-com genre as James Burrows.
I confess that I now want to write an essay entitled, ‘the aesthetic stylings of Pamela Fryman’.
At the time of writing, when multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour have been made against producer Harvey Weinstein and director James Toback, we are said to have arrived at a watershed moment. There is a connection between inappropriate sexual behaviour and the suppression of women’s storytelling, a climate of fear that has led to self-censorship. Now stories are being told and the outrage is that it is the same story, of women being invited into spaces – hotel rooms, the producer’s home – in which they are coerced into acts that lead to the sexual gratification of the tyrannical male. The travesty is that the accused can retreat to luxury clinics rather than publically accountable correctional facilities. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that luxury clinics are classified as business expenses for tax purposes; Cannes is probably the biggest ‘luxury clinic’ of all.
Returning to The Boy Downstairs, it is an example of the New York romantic comedy. The genre is defined by an opening premise: it is difficult to find love in New York City, or indeed any of the five boroughs, though we are mainly concerned with striking architecture and glamorous lifestyles.
From personal experience – I have visited New York City ten times over a thirty year period, including two attempts at stand-up comedy (a very male dominated profession, incidentally) – New York is for the most part a very unfriendly city. If you want courtesy and good manners, tip 15%. Years ago, I had my wallet stolen on 34th Street. The pickpocket’s watch got caught in my pocket and it was like a non-consensual trade. When I reported the incident to a nearby beat cop, I was told to go down the station and file a report, which I would then have to pay for.
I have never seen that in a cop show. In police procedurals, they say that a felon made bail, but never how much. I guess it is rude to ask. The one thing I learned about America is that if you want justice, you have to pay for it. Land of the free? You are kidding – you have to settle for ‘land of the free movie passes’.
The New York romantic comedy is based on the myth that you can find the love of your life in a crowded room. Are you kidding? Try finding a lost contact lens in a crowded room, then talk to me about love. The city is filled with cultured, witty, handsome individuals who deserve to be together, even though the children are emotional screw-ups. I wonder if there is a Guinness World Records award for longest lasting marriage on Manhattan Island since 1945. I would hazard a guess that it is fifteen years. Yet here is this comedy format that proposes true love.
Standing outside in the freezing cold
Our heroine is Diana (Zosia Mamet), who at the start of the movie is standing outside an apartment building in the freezing cold. How cold is it? I’m writing this in Stockholm in November so I don’t have to imagine. She is handing back a sweater to her ex, Ben (Matthew Shear) who is surprised to see her. The meeting is like super-awkward, but what is more so is the phrase ‘super awkward’. I mean, in five years from now (2022) are we really going to preface ever word with ‘super’ except perhaps ‘market’?
I really want to write an essay entitled, ‘grammar 2022’.
They had a thing and now the thing is over. Diana is going to London and she’s not sure she can get ex-boyfriend’s sweaters through customs. (‘Have you brought any animal goods into the country?’ ‘There’s this – it is 65% sheepskin’. Weeps uncontrollably.)
Smash cut to three years later. Diana has returned to New York and she’s basically homeless. Which raises the question: what address did she put on her customs form? Her best friend, Gabby (Diana Irvine) is best friends with a realtor, Amy (Deidre O’Connell) who is a former actress turned real estate mogul. Well, she has property and it makes money, because you wouldn’t put money in stocks after 2008 or in painting. You can buy a painting by Caravaggio for $450 million including auction house fee ($50 million) but you can’t ever hope to sell it for that. And that [painting] had some work done it, like I guess most women on Manhattan Island over 40. Anyway, before she meets Amy, she looks at an apartment shown to her by Meg (Sarah Ramos) who does not react to Diana’s humour. I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world. I cannot remember anything about the men and women who showed my wife and I apartments (we call them flats) in North London, invariably with our seven month old son in tow. You’re looking at the rooms. You’re going through your checklist of questions – when was the washing machine last used? Will my downstairs neighbour be able to hear me laugh when I watch ‘The Apprentice’ and then bang the ceiling in complaint? [This happened last month.] Then your kid needs a nappy change. Intense! So bonding with a realtor isn’t something that really happens in London. Indeed, once you have agreed to buy, they are magically unavailable – I need to move in by April, May or before the cigarette smoke from my neighbour which we cannot lawfully stop chokes the lungs of my baby son. My then MP: ‘you can’t stop people smoking in their own homes.’ My landlord: ‘I’m putting the rent up by £100 a week.’
Diana and Amy, the older woman with an apartment to rent, bond over a couple of coffee in Amy’s home, because, let’s face it, when you’re in someone’s home, you don’t have to worry about splitting the check. Diana is so happy Amy didn’t remark on the accident she had with hair dying products – her hair is bleach blonde but her eyebrows are heavy black as if to say ‘I’m not fooling anyone’. If Amy had said something, Diana would have just super absorbed it because she’s super-absorbent.
So Diana has this great new apartment, but not such a great new job selling bridal gowns at a made-to-order wedding gown place. A customer says she loves the gown but does it come in pink? No, we don’t sell this dress in pink because that would interfere with the artist’s intentions. This scene is one of the better ones in the film – it feels like a real anecdote brought to the cinema screen – because it has nothing to do with the plot; when Brooks does plot, the film goes to sleep. But would a woman in a dress shop really refer to the wedding dress designer as ‘the artist’? This made me think that Brooks hadn’t been to a bridal gown store – no harm, no vow. This in turn made me doubt the drama’s integrity – I know it’s a fluffy romantic comedy, but there are standards.
Diana gets the shock of her life when she discovers that Ben is her downstairs neighbour. Worse, he didn’t bring a ‘welcome to the building’ gift. Worse, still, he has a new girlfriend, Meg, the realtor with no sense of humour. You know that Ben and Meg have no future, because who bonds with their realtor? (See above.)
How much mileage can you get out of this premise? In the sit-com spin-off, plenty. You can start a reading group in your apartment. He can start a reading group in his. They can read the same book – imagine. Then someone defects from his reading group to yours and your reading group to his, but you wonder whether his is a spy. Then your parents meet under weird circumstances and you think ‘I’ve got a season one cliff-hanger to build’. In Brooks’ film, there isn’t that much ‘tree shaking’ (Act Two) incident to report. Instead, Brooks flashes back to the beginning of their relationship and tells the two stories of Diana and Ben in parallel.
Years ago, I had a theory that if couple’s names were not phonetically compatible – if they didn’t sound right together – then the relationship wouldn’t last. Sam and Diane (Cheers), Jack and Rose (Titanic), these are the ones that are meant to be. For a while Ben and Jen seemed to work, but Affleck broke it, he sunk my phonetic battleship. (OK, I don’t blame him for Pearl Harbour.) Diana and Ben, Ben and Diana – they don’t sound right together. It is the ‘a’ at the end of Diana; you want to say Ben and Diane. He’s solid, she great. Diana really only goes well with a name ending with ‘s’, like Charles and Diana or Diana and Ross (Diana Ross). Writers should listen to their own words, but I suspect Brooks doesn’t, hence the reference to artist’s intentions.
Pictured: Diana Irvine and Zosia Mamet on location in 'The Boy Downstairs'. Photo credit not available.
But what about taking it [the dress] in? What about the modesty flap? I am fascinated by the modesty flap. I could start a band called Modesty Flap. I can’t play a musical instrument (except a Michael Nyman number on my son’s xylophone) but that wouldn’t stop me.
Back to the non-story. Diana keeps running into Ben and they have nothing to say to each other. Diana’s boss (see what I did there) would have something to say about losing a sale but there is no Diana boss. Both Ben and Diana watch Amy’s comeback theatrical performance in which she thumps her stage husband with a newspaper. Through the course of the film, we learn what caused the couple to part – and it wasn’t a dinner with Diana’s judgmental father (Arliss Howard, though I did expect David Mamet to turn up, really).
The film only gets into real romantic comedy territory when Diana slips outside of Ben’s apartment, not expecting to see him there, and is taken to hospital. This is typical female-centred slapstick associated with the genre. The only other scene that rang vaguely true featured Diana and Ben praising Amy’s performance. You suddenly flash forward and think, now I have to watch all my landlady’s plays and praise them, even though they feature some of the most pretentious writing this side of off-Broadway. She’ll know I’m a fake – I’m not an actress.
This is my theory why one of the characters moves out.
There are many cardinal sins that Brooks commits. Having a lead character who is an aspiring writer, who only writes one page, is one. A person who fills in their tax return properly deserves to be called an artist more than Diana does. Then there is the non-phonetic, non-physical match. There is nothing to root for here.
The finale is physically painful to watch. When Zosia Mamet gets serious she – delivers – her –lines – really – slowly, giving none of them any emphasis because that is what Dad taught her. You just want her to get through the speech. By the very end, the door opens slightly in the tradition of ye olde romantic comedies. It has to, we have three minutes of upbeat end credits music to cover. This is not a conspiracy thriller.
Reviewed at Stockholm International Film Festival, Friday 17 November 2017, 19:00 screening. Trailer not yet available