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The Talent Given Us

      The Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year Old Virgin are two of 2005's most pleasurable American comedies, and deserve their wide popularity.   The third comedy of merit, Andrew Wagner's The Talent Given Us, my favorite of all this year, has languished in deep limbo since premiering last January at Sundance. It's failed to lure a distributor, this hilarious--also, endearing, occasionally heartbreaking --shaggy-dog road movie.

      The Talented Given Us is an all-star family production, "the aristocrats" (the joke) with the loony, obsessive, inbred cast, but without the wall-to-wall sex. Filmmaker Wagner, a high-school teacher and also frustrated, semi-failed screenwriter residing in LA, persuaded his wife to take their savings for a down payment on a home and self-finance this intensely personal movie. Wagner wrote, directed, photographed, and edited it in his living room, but the cast came cheaply. Courageously playing blighted, manic, wounded (and fictive?) versions of themselves, are Andrew's sixtyish mother and father, and his thirtyish sisters. They're all sublime on screen, very funny, startlingly open. How did they allow Andrew to film them at the most fragile, fractious moments? When was the last time you saw a filmmaker and camera in bed with his parents, as his naked father is pushing mother's head lower and lower? (Don't worry: there's a cutaway!)

      The film begins on Manhattan's West Side, the middle-class Jewish residency of the parents, Allen and Judy Wagner. Allen, an overweight rhino, huffs and wobbles all the way to doctors' appointments, his conversation an incomprehensible plug of phlegm, a plastic straw (for suction?) planted in his cheek like a lollipop. He's become incontinent and impotent from an overload of medicines, and Judy doesn't like it.   She sits home doing crossword puzzles, sometimes feeling for Allen, othertimes raging and fuming. "I missed the mark in my life," she declares.

     On a mad impulse, Judy convinces Allen to drive across country to see Andrew, as if visiting their son might make life right. They bring along their adult daughters, the vaguely normal Maggie, and the absurdly cuckoo Emily, whose decade-long thespian career as a background character on ER (true!) isn't enough to fend off four-times-a-week shrink appointments. "I'm a compulsive masturbator because you wouldn't pick me up as a kid," she tells her mother.

     And away they go! California, here they come!

      What's the serious stuff? Judy is angry forever because, many moons ago, Allen seemingly had an affair, and he still denies it. Now she's contemplating a divorce to salvage her last years, and Allen is in denial about that too. Should she or shouldn't she leave her husband? All good road movies are ultimately about self-discovery; and In LA, city of self-help, all kinds of answers are proposed. And son Andrew? He's MIA, as nobody has seen him for weeks and weeks.

      But the self-reflexive irony, of course, is that, while the Wagner family is desperately seeking him, he's been there all the time: quietly standing behind the camera. And Judy and Allen? After 45 years passing each other, maybe, with the talent given them, they too can look up and see, and confess a screwy kind of semi-happiness.  

(January, 2006)

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