I had high hopes for TOUCHY FEELY, Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to YOUR SISTER’S SISTER, which premiered at Sundance London (Cineworld O2, North Greenwich) on 26 April 2013. YOUR SISTER’S SISTER was an economical, tightly plotted, perfectly acted (by Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt), funny and emotionally engaging film about two sisters and an emotionally-damaged man whose brother had passed away. Shelton’s new film, her fifth feature, departs from what she has established as a formula – small group of characters, basically a single location, mostly improvised within the context of a story – to a film that starts with two characters that you don’t believe are related – Abby (DeWitt again), a masseuse who suddenly develops an aversion to skin and her brother Paul (Josh Pais), a dentist whose practice needs, as the pun goes, ‘word of mouth’.
We first see Abby doing her thing, the laying of hands: calm, confident and cognisant of muscle. Her customer remarks, ‘Abby will you marry me? Her brother, Paul is introverted, spacey-eyed, has a disproportionately long forehead; scary. His daughter, Jenny (Ellen Page) – is she old enough to be his daughter, Paul looks late thirties – is spooning out rock cakes.
‘The toilet is acting up,’ Paul remarks.
Jenny barely pays attention. He repeats the remark.
‘Sometimes you have to, you know, put your hand inside and adjust it,’ Jenny explains, her eyes still fixed on the cakes.
Jesse (Scoot McNairy) arrives and carries his bicycle inside, setting it on clean floorboards. Somehow this seems inconsiderate. He is full of juice, pedal power. He has brought wine and, like, a beer.
He and Jenny connect instantly. Their talk is faster. They have an argument about whether a calzone is a folded-up pizza. Jenny says she’ll make him one so he can tell the difference.
‘What do I get if I don’t like it?’ asks Paul, considering the taste challenge as some sort of bet.
‘I don’t know - a beer!’
‘OK. [Pause] What do I get if I do like it?’
‘The satisfaction of a tasty meal!’
The bet doesn’t seem even. There is tension. You wonder if Ellen Page is ever going to get another role as good as JUNO or whether she is going to put on glasses and play Velma in a reboot of SCOOBY DOO (‘The Dark Dog Rises’). Then Abby arrives. She has wine but has forgotten to make the salad dressing. She is straight into her niece, like a greyhound out of the trap.
‘Have you put the college applications in?’
She is straight into Paul. ‘How’s the practice going?’
She is straight into Jesse. She takes him into the toilet – you know, the one that is acting up – and they make love. Paul nervously approaches the toilet, hears the moans and edges away.
Trivia: Josh Pais discovered how to play Paul when he developed his walk, basically with his toes bunched up.
No one walks with their toes bunched up.
Abby embodies energy. The film is about reike – the transfer of energy. What happens? Energy is transferred from Abby to Paul. (The detail that Paul is living in his parents’ house, the one on which he pays property tax, as he points out later, is also important.)
So there are two contrasting dentist scenes. The first has Paul saying goodbye to a patient. ‘See you again next time.’ His patient is old, perhaps loyal, but undoubtedly played by a local with no acting experience. She doesn’t even say goodbye. You imagine Shelton talking into her ear piece – ‘go in a straight line. No, don’t look at anything else. You can do it! Swell.’
I imagine that Shelton, who makes films in Seattle, Washington, uses expressions like ‘swell’.
The second occurs after Paul has treated Henry (Tomo Nakayama, a singer-songwriter) who Jenny knows. (‘He makes my coffee.’)
‘Jenny said I could come in for a free clean,’ Henry tells the receptionist.
Jenny is of course glad to see him, glad to have the chance to clean his teeth. Paul appears (remember he looks vaguely psychotic). He is not pleased.
‘This is not good,’ he exclaims in a monotone. ‘You don’t have the qualifications.’
‘But I’ve seen you do it, like, a million times,’ Jenny pleads.
‘I think you should stay on your side, don’t you? [To Henry] Now, when did you last visit a dentist?’
‘Five years ago.’
But here’s the twist. Henry, who serves Jenny her coffee, reports that Paul has cured his TMJ. What’s TMJ? I don’t know! It’s some sort of pain in the mouth possibly caused by rock cakes as first seen in Paul’s kitchen.
Word gets around. Meanwhile Abby has her skin aversion. Her customer disrobes, lies on the bed. Abby stares it. She has forgotten where to start. Then she runs to the toilet to throw up. So much for being in ‘Terra Firma’ (the name of her practice)!
Abby runs to Jesse who works in 20:20 Bicycle (for a name, it beats my local branch of Micycle - but not by much).
‘Take off your shirt!’
‘Why?’ Jesse does it anyway.
Abby looks at Jesse; we don’t see what she sees. She runs away. Never mind TMJ - WTF!
Abby visits her reike mistress (Allison Janney) to whom he had earlier referred her brother. (Cue explanation of reike.) ‘Your energy, it’s all over the place,’ she tells Abby. There is a conversation about Charlie, the reike mistress’ late significant other. Then, out of the blue –
‘You should try MDNA.’
At last, an explanation of something with initials.
Ms Reike gives Abby two tablets.
So Abby offers Jesse the chance to take a tab. ‘We’re the kind of couple who need ecstasy to do it?’ he asks incredulously.
We take that as a ‘no’.
Of course, the real point of crisis is Abby’s flat search. She has to give up her cubby little hole (see the first dinner party scene). Abby receives two offers: one from Jesse, ‘you could move in with me’. One from Paul: ‘we’d be very happy to have you until you – find – something – suitable.’
Abby chooses Jesse, ‘the rebound guy, the man who was supposed to get me back in the game’ and that is the problem.
Fear of starting over.
So what’s the film about, everybody? That’s right – letting go of the past.
Paul’s gift, the presents from grateful customers, doesn’t last. An angry customer comes in.
‘You fraud, give me back my money. You didn’t cure my TMJ.’
What is TMJ?
Paul of course never promised to cure anybody’s TMJ. To his first – to all his customers – he says ‘we’ll see what we can do.’ His customers or at least the one who has been given a speaking part says, ‘of course’. She’s humouring him. She knows he has a gift.
We want to believe people have gifts. Then we can give presents.
The male customer complains so hard he collapses. ‘Get – me – my – paper bag.’ Paul hands it to him flat. The customer snatches it, breathes into it. ‘Asshole!’
At this time, Paul is visiting Ms Reike (or is she Ms Reike Now). The first scene where he climbs onto the table on all fours then curls up you sense is improvised. This is oddly one of the better scenes, but is perfectly shaped because it’s about a man who totally does not get it. Ms Reike takes a shine to him. Paul takes to the idea of reike.
Meanwhile Abby is being stalked.
She is being stalked by Adrian (Mark Duplass, uncredited).
She is being stalked after she takes a tab of MDMA and everything is in close up. Look at the flowers! Look at the soil slipping through my fingers.
Adrian introduces himself. Suddenly, the energy of the film goes up.
Adrian is selling his parents place. He was with Gina. Clearly, he and Abby had a thing.
Abby visits the vacant house. The camera tracks through the empty rooms. We think they are in the top room making love but no, Abby is reminiscing, trailing her hand against the curtain.
This puts me right off MDNA.
Meanwhile, Jenny approaches Jesse. ‘Do you want to go to a concert with me?’
They go. Henry sings a beautiful song.
‘Do you ever want to kiss someone so hard, your mouth hurts?’
This is the power of scripted dialogue, my friends.
‘Jenny, I love Abby.’
Indeed he does.
So long story short. Paul takes a tab, lying next to an uneaten sandwich – I’d have had the sandwich myself – and trips out. He passes a party.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Why don’t you go in? You might like it.’
No, this is the power of scripted dialogue.
Paul goes in. He dances. He was so uptight. Who knew? [Like the entire movie audience.] Anyway, he gets with Ms Reike. There is a meal, glimpsed through the window. Jenny brings Henry. Abby is back with Jesse. Paul is there. Everyone is happy. Roll credits.
It doesn’t sound so bad – I apologise for the complete summary. [I once did this for the original MEET THE PARENTS. Now that film is destroyed. Who’s the real spoiler?] Yet it doesn’t work. You don’t connect with the characters. It seems long-winded, contrived. It doesn’t focus on the really interesting character of Paul or really deal with Abby’s fear of skin, as if Shelton did not know how to develop the idea. She probably should have work-shopped the script so that she could discover which parts of the story really worked. It feels like it was made too soon, before the ideas had properly fermented. It is, in the final analysis, an honest failure.
Shelton’s next film is with Anne Hathaway. She did not write the script. I hope through that process she gets her mojo back. Best of luck!