Double Lover

Laden with ambiguities and stylistic flourishes reminiscent of David Cronenberg or Brian De Palma at his bonkers best, this latest offering from Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, In the House) is a convoluted psychological thriller that is both unsettling and perversely funny with lashings of vigorous sex thrown in as Chloe – the protagonist of the piece – finds herself caught in a frenzy of psychological despair. Resplendent with striking visuals, this tale of deception is artsy, seductive and perhaps a little bit ridiculous, but it is strangely moving with an ending that serves as vindication for Chloe, whose persistent stomach pains have been dismissed as psychosomatic, a diagnosis which results in her visiting psychologist Paul Meyer (Jeremie Renier). The relationship between Chloe and Paul quickly moves beyond the professional and soon enough the loved-up couple are moving into an apartment together. Whilst there is nothing particularly new in the premise of a vulnerable young woman falling under the spell of a charming older man, it is where Ozon takes the story from this point that makes it more interesting.

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Ozon sets out to unsettle from the get-go, with our introduction to Chloe (Marine Vacht) courtesy of an opening scene that is devoid of dialogue and comprises nothing more than her getting a haircut. In the following scene though it is much more difficult to grasp what we are seeing until the camera zooms out to reveal it is, in fact, Chloe’s vagina spread open by a speculum as she undergoes a gynaecological examination. From here Ozon executes a remarkably effective match cut to Chloe’s eye, a solitary tear escaping in reaction to the disappointment that the doctor can find nothing to explain her pain. It is a scene that that few would have the chutzpah to even attempt, but to Ozon’s considerable credit, he has been able to execute the moment without eliciting the guffaws that might have ensued in the hands of a less capable filmmaker. Having first come to our attention when cast by Ozon in 2013’s Young & Beautiful, Vacht and is on the record as declaring that “nudity is a costume too,” an attitude that reflects a greater (more reasonable) tolerance of depictions of sex and sexuality from European filmmakers and audiences than their American counterparts (the decidedly dire Red Sparrow is the most recent example of Hollywood trying, and failing, to deliver something sexy).

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Beyond the fact that he hates her pussy, a grey moggy named Milo who is handed off to a nutty neighbour in the interests of keeping the peace, Chloe senses something is amiss with Paul, a suspicion that is substantiated when she meets Louis, a psychoanalyst who works across town and happens to be Paul’s twin brother, a sibling about whom Paul has made no mention. Louis (also played by Renier) loves cats, of course, but also claims he can cure Chloe of her complaint, implementing a treatment regime that comprises a lot of vigorous sex and not much else. Amid recurring motifs of mirrors, spiral staircases and hallucinatory dream-like sequences, Chloe finds herself descending into a maelstrom of confusion and distrust as she sets out to discover the circumstances that drove the two men apart, each of whom offer a different spin on the course of events. It gets silly at times, but the two performers remain committed to the cause and prevent it from descending into farce.

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Whilst there is so little discernible difference in the physical appearance of the two men beyond the way they part their hair that even Chloe is at times unable to distinguish between them, their personalities are polar opposites, but Renier handles the dual responsibilities very well. Vacht, who, like her character, is a former model, more than holds her own in a part that rides a rollercoaster of emotional upheavals, while the legendary Jacqueline Bissett also takes on a dual role. Whilst not Ozon’s best work, he has somehow managed to make Double Lover a far more palatable and credible film than it might have been in the hands of a less accomplished filmmaker.



Mary Magdalene

So, you’ve just made a successful award-winning drama about a young Indian boy adopted by an Australian family who returns to his homeland some 20 years later in an effort to track down his parents. What do you do next? Well, if you are Lion director Garth Davis, you follow up with one of the most boring films ever to grace a cinema screen. This yawn-inducing historical drama is a pointless waste of every resource that went into making it and it is an insult to the talents of the performers who agreed to be a part of it, although ultimately they only have themselves to blame. It’s not that the performances are bad as such, because Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix are as good as they can be given the material at their disposal; it’s just that neither is really given anything remotely interesting to work with. It’s hard to understand why Davis felt this story needed to be told, although it seems for no other reason than to simply remind everybody that Mary Magdalene (Mara) was a saint, not a sinner; the legend of Mary being a prostitute is vehemently denied in a closing-credits disclaimer just to be sure.

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In coastal Judaea (substituted here by Italy’s Puglia region), Mary lives a life of little more than labour and devotion to her Jewish faith. When not tending sheep, casting and retrieving fishing nets in the surf or serving as a midwife, she spends her time in prayer, the fervour of which proves somewhat disquieting for the rest of the community that, of course, operates under a strict patriarchal order. Mara has a luminous on-screen presence and it seems that Davis is amongst those who would think nothing of watching her silently eat pie for eight minutes or so, but that scene from A Ghost Story is an orgy of action compared to anything that Mara’s character gets up to here. A terrific actress who tends to shy away from mainstream fare in selecting her roles (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Una), I guess it is inevitable that sometimes she will pick a project that doesn’t allow her to showcase her considerable talents. In fact Mara spends so much of her time in the early part of the story staring wistfully at who-knows-what that the arrival of Jesus and his Merry Men Apostles brings some welcome relief to the tedium of her life and our viewing experience.

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As Jesus, Phoenix is an inspired casting choice and his portrayal of the tortured, hipster-bearded prophet is the only highlight in an otherwise mundane movie. In fact, from this point, Mary takes a back seat in proceedings as she joins Jesus and his posse on their travels. Everything from here on leads to Jesus’ crucifixion outside Jerusalem and his subsequent resurrection, with Mary the first to bear witness to his rebirth. Sure, Phoenix’s Jesus presents as something like a Woodstock-era stoner but that makes for a much more interesting interpretation of a character about whom everything we know is largely speculative and open to interpretation anyway. This Jesus is a tortured soul, physically and mentally drained by the demands of his divinity. The rest of his travelling troupe is largely sidelined by Davis though, with only Peter (Chiwitel Ejiofor) and Judas (Tahar Rahim) given any screen time of note.

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Given how tepid this telling is, it seems unlikely Mary Magdalene will attract the level of ‘moral outrage’ that films such as Martin Scorcese’ The Last Temptation of Christ garnered upon release, but that is not to say that people won’t be angry. In fact, I’m sure many will be furious at having given up some of their hard-earned to watch this utterly uninspired piece of digital revisionism in which the titular character does an awful lot of enlightened gazing at her idol (and not much else).

A Fantastic Woman

It seems that more and more of the best movies are being made outside the Hollywood studio system, if not outside of America altogether, and the fact that several, if not all, of the Best Foreign Film nominees at the 2018 Academy Awards were better than all of those contending for Best Film is testament to this changing paradigm. The fact then that this latest effort from Chilean director Sebastian Lelio beat the likes of Loveless and The Square to win the Oscar is an indication of just how highly regarded it is in the eyes of those who make such decisions. This is a fairly simple story that packs a considerable emotional punch without trying to manipulate the audience into a reaction. With a mesmerising central performance by Daniela Vega as Marina, A Fantastic Woman follows a young woman as she finds herself subjected to ignorance and intolerance following the sudden death of her boyfriend. Vega is rarely absent from the screen and her character transcends loneliness; internally processing her pain and rising above the indignities and hostilities she endures amidst the agony of her bereavement.

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When we first meet Marina, she is happily ensconced in a romantic relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older man in whose apartment she has recently taken up residence. After a night of dinner, dancing and sex, Orlando wakes in the middle of the night feeling desperately ill, disoriented and struggling for breath. Panicked, Marina rushes Orlando to the hospital, but it is to no avail and it is Orlando’s passing that kicks the story into gear. As a transgender woman, Marina is despised and disregarded by Orlando’s family in the wake of his death and finds herself under suspicion from authorities. It is her gender identity, rather than anything she has done, that sees her pathologised and criminalised, with Lelio bringing the ignorance and cruelty of conformism into focus. Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) and ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) make no effort to hide their hostility, demanding that Marina vacate the flat and making it abundantly clear that she is not welcome at the funeral.

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The film, for the most part, is a serious, and somewhat sombre, drama given the despicable treatment that Marina endures, however Lelio periodically transitions with supreme confidence and skill from the somewhat straightforward presentation of Marina’s situation to moments of magical realism; often an inner dream state that Marina uses in a bid to stymie the wretchedness that she endures, which includes an assault from Bruno and his friends. A nightclub scene morphs into a mysterious choreographed spectacle, while a walk down the street takes on a sense of the surreal as she struggles against a fierce wind; perhaps a metaphor for the forces pushing against her as she seeks to be treated with dignity and respect. It is these more whimsical moments that might draw comparisons with Pedro Almodovar, particularly given his history of celebrating alternative sexualities but, despite the occasional flourish, Lelio brings a much more constrained, realist approach to the material.

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Enraging, funny and surreal, A Fantastic Woman is a film about somebody who is exactly that, a central character who refuses to quit or succumb to the numerous blows she is dealt; both of the literal and figurative variety. It is only Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) who affords Marina any respect, while Trinidad Gonzalez and Nestor Cantillana lighten the mood as Marina’s supportive stoner sister and her flake of a husband. With Vega delivering a performance of such grace as to make her one of the most likeable protagonists you will encounter, Lelio follows up his much-awarded Gloria (which he is currently re-making in America with Julianne Moore) with another highly accomplished work that not only confirms the director as yet another filmmaking force from Latin America (in the footsteps of Cuaron, del Toro, Inarritu and fellow Chilean Pablo Lorrain), but also deserves to deliver a significant commercial return for all those who have invested in this seriously delightful drama.

Red Sparrow

When you gather a cast that includes the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson and Joel Edgerton, the expectation is that something special will be the result. Well, not necessarily it seems because Red Sparrow is a dumb-headed, misogynistic, misguided mess of a movie that wants to be many things and ultimately fails in its attempt to be anything remotely interesting. The first red flag comes almost immediately when we are expected to accept the likes of Lawrence, Irons, Hinds, Schoenaerts and Richardson as Russians. I mean, who knew Russians no longer speak their native tongue? If the world of this movie is to be believed, accented English is now the first language of the Russian Federation. If the story is set in Russia, why can’t we have Russian actors in the various roles? Why, at the very least, can’t we have the performers speaking Russian in a bid to lend some credibility to proceedings? Perhaps this could be more easily overlooked if the rest of the film was something particularly inspired but, alas, that is not the case.

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Directed by Francis Lawrence, Red Sparrow sells itself as a sophisticated spy thriller but ultimately emerges as a tawdry, tedious waste of the considerable talents of the cast at his disposal. In her fourth collaboration with her namesake director (who helmed three of the Hunger Games films), Jennifer Lawrence is the titular ‘sparrow’, a term used to describe women recruited to the Russian intelligence service for the purposes of using their bodies to manipulate targets and extract information. In other words, they are fucking for their Government. Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova is an acclaimed ballet dancer whose career ends suddenly and violently, leaving her at the mercy of a slimy uncle (Schoenaerts) who recognises her potential as a sparrow and lures her in with promises of an apartment and ongoing support for her ill mother (Richardson). She is ushered off to a remote training facility run by a typically malevolent matron (Rampling) to learn the requisite ‘skills’.

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Dominika is subsequently despatched to Budapest in a bid to lure CIA operative Nate Nash (Edgerton) into revealing the identity of an informant within the upper echelons of Russian intelligence. Nash is alert to this ruse from the get-go and lures Dominika into working as a double agent, which apparently requires that she has sex with him as well. It isn’t long before suspicions mount amongst Dominika’s Russian comrades and she finds herself under intense scrutiny of the life-threatening kind. It is all a bit silly really and is yet another American film that revels in casting Russia as the bad guys, presenting the Russian intelligence hierarchy – which includes Irons and Hands – as buffoons, a collective characterisation achieved through a combination of dodgy dialogue and comical Russian accents. The sex scenes are almost laughable in their execution, with so much emphasis placed on protecting Lawrence’s modesty that any sense of eroticism, or the exploitation to which the character is subjected, is lost. Dominika’s seduction of Nash, for example, plays out more like a dodgy lap dance than a couple in the throes of intercourse. It is absolutely okay for any performer to opt out of roles requiring nudity or sex scenes, so this leaves me wondering why Lawrence would take on such a character if such requirements were going to prove problematic. Yes, Dominika is a sexist construct whose sole purpose is to titillate men, but such characters are hardly anything new to the misogynistic mecca that is Hollywood, but Lawrence had to be aware of this long before signing up. Needless to say though, there was no holding back on the violence because somebody being garrotted to death is, apparently, far more palatable than the merest glimpse of a penis or a vagina. Go figure.

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Richardson has little to do other than look frail, pallid and pitiful and, whilst Parker is also grossly under-utilised, she does bring the only levity to proceedings as a drunken political staffer selling secrets to the enemy. Far from being an exciting espionage thriller, Red Sparrow moves at a sluggish pace and never generates much suspense across its excessive 140-minute running time. If a quality female-centric action piece is what you seek, your time would be better spent revisiting the likes of La Femme Nikita, the Millenium trilogy or even Joe Wright’s Saoirse Ronin-starring Hanna than wasting your time with this.

Lady Bird

If you grew up poor in a constant state of embarrassment about your circumstances, you will be able to relate to Lady Bird. If you had a mother who would be constantly telling you that you will never achieve anything in life, you will be able to relate to Lady Bird. If you were ever a teenager, you will be able to relate to Lady Bird because the directorial debut from indie darling Greta Gerwig is one of the best examinations of adolescence we have seen for quite some time. With the obvious exception of the late, great John Hughes, few filmmakers have captured the agony of the teenage years as authentically as Gerwig has here; all the angst, insecurity and uncertainty of that period in our lives where we sit delicately poised between the naivety of childhood and the burden of responsibility and expectation that grows exponentially as we make the transition into adulthood. In this instance – as is no doubt the case in many families, the hopes and dreams of young people are at odds with the expectations of others (parents, teachers, friends) – the titular Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson finds herself at loggerheads with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) on just about everything.

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Sure, Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is tempestuous and overly dramatic at times, but Marion is, for want of a better word, a bitch and it is hardly surprising that Christine wants to flee the family home in Sacramento, California to attend college on the east coast, “where culture is”. Attending the local catholic high school on a scholarship, Christine lives, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks in a modest home with Marion, her father Larry (Tracy Letts) her adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodriguez) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott). Money is tight, with Marion working long hours as a psychiatric nurse to make ends meet. Miguel and Shelly both work at the local supermarket and Lady Bird is determined to make a better life for herself, as far away from Sacramento as possible. Like most people her age, Christine hides her fears and uncertainties behind a façade of self-confidence and a determination to convince herself that she is capable of more than what her mother envisages for her.

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At one point, in reaction to being told what a financial burden she has been, Christine asks Marion to provide a number – an amount that totals the cost of raising her – so that she can pay it back. In response, Marion spews ‘it doesn’t matter, because you will never have a job that pays well enough’, one of several instances in which Marion makes it quite clear that she holds little hope for Christine to make much of a mark on the world which, of course, is demoralising. Perhaps Marion is struggling to come to terms with the fact that Christine is ready to make her own way in the world and there are those who will argue that Marion is simply trying to shield her daughter from disappointment, no doubt borne from her own failings to escape the endless struggle of trying to make ends meet. However, as infuriating as Christine can be, there is no excuse for the way Marion treats her, leaving the quietly depressed, but utterly decent, Larry as the buffer between the two women.

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From her skilful handling of issues such as depression, friendship, sex and sexuality and the ritualism of a catholic education, Gerwig has created a film that feels real. There is an authenticity in the characters and the world in which they live, no doubt due, in large part, to the autobiographical aspect of the story. Gerwig, whose on-screen credits include the likes of Maggie’s Plan, Mistress America and Frances Ha, grew up in Sacramento and whilst Christine is desperate to flee, the director and her cinematographer Sam Levy deliver a somewhat romanticised vision of the city (which has spawned walking tours of the Sacramento locations showcased in the film). A knockout turn from Ronan, whose perfect pitch and nuanced, graceful performance allows us and sympathise with her character, even at her most obnoxious. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) feature as the boys to whom Christine finds herself drawn and Beanie Feldstein is great as the friend who is cast aside when the opportunity to hang with the cool kids presents itself. A wistful, nostalgic, and gloriously funny portrait of adolescence, Lady Bird is a wonderfully assured effort from Gerwig, who also wrote the screenplay, that is one of the most accomplished female coming-of-age tales since the Hughes era.

Black Panther

This latest addition to the Marvel pantheon is as good as anything the studio has produced, delivering the requisite technical wizardry with a story that is highly relevant at a time when the American president has declared that white supremacists can be good people and when African-Americans and other non-white ethnicities continue to be subjected to disproportionate levels of injustice, discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of police and other agencies. Directed and co-written (with Joe Cole) by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), Black Panther is a superhero movie that actually has something to say, and it does so without veering too far from the superhero dynamics that make the larger franchise work.

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The titular Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) also happens to be T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, whose ascension to the throne to replace his father (who was killed in Captain America: Civil War) is only confirmed with victory against anybody who wishes to challenge him in a fight, the staging of which is, of course, at the top of a waterfall, presumably to bring added tension via the possibility that either fighter could plummet to their death. It doesn’t and they don’t, however it seems as good a way as any to determine who rules and perhaps when Queen Lizzie expires, we could have Harry and William duke it out for the throne. Even though he has, apparently, won the right to be king fair and square, there is always somebody who is unhappy and in this instance it is the appropriately named Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), a vengeful outsider who, believing he is the rightful King, makes a bid for the throne.

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Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the film is the way in which the anti-immigration, anti-trade political framework of Wakanda is more akin to the likes of Cuba or North Korea than it is to any free-thinking western democracy. Wakanda thrives thanks to its near-infinite supply of vibranium, a substance that is seemingly miraculous in myriad ways, none of which the movie really bothers to explain. In order to keep all its resources for itself, Wakanda uses its advanced technologies to disguise itself as a poor third-world African nation and its isolationist policies protect it from colonisation. Killmonger wants to take control of Wakanda so that he can utilise these technologies to arm an African revolution around the world, an action that will reveal all of the secrets that Wakanda has tried so hard to protect, whereas T’Challa is quite content to maintain the approach that has kept Wakanda safe. Well, at least it seems that way until a post-credits sequence suggests otherwise.

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In stark contrast to the cocky swagger of Iron Man’s Tony Stark or Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star Lord, Boseman plays T’Challa as quiet and thoughtful. Featuring an almost entirely African-American cast, the majority of whom are female warriors charged with protecting the king and played by the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright, this is a film that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Forest Whittaker and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) also feature, while the only white characters are Martin Freeman as FBI agent Everett Ross and Andy Serkis as arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. The film doesn’t shy away from current issues surrounding racial disparities, but there is no attempt from the filmmakers to suggest that there are easy answers. The production and costume design are both top-notch and Coogler has demonstrated a deft hand at balancing substance with spectacle. As a result, Black Panther is gripping, funny and thought-provoking, yet full of action; a turning point perhaps where the studio has finally recognised that its movies can, and should, be about something more.

Finding Your Feet

I dare say that I have said this before, but Hollywood could learn a lot from the English film industry with regard to creating roles for older actors and this latest effort from Richard Loncraine follows in the footsteps of other recent releases such as Hampstead, The Lady in the Van, The Time of Their Lives and many more before that put senior characters at the forefront of the narrative, harnessing the talents of experienced performers. With Finding Your Feet, Loncraine has gathered an ensemble with than 200 collective years of experience on stage and screen and whilst none of them are presented with anything particularly challenging in what is a somewhat slight story, it is certainly more substantial (and entertaining) than a lot of the rank rubbish that makes its way onto cinema screens.

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Set ostensibly in London, the film opens at the country manor of Mike (John Sessions) and Sandra (Imelda Staunton) as friends and family gather to celebrate Mike’s retirement. When Sandra discovers her husband of 40+ years in a compromising position with another woman, she sets forth to reconnect with her bohemian sister Bif (Celia Imrie), who lives in a small flat on a council estate that is a far cry from the luxury to which she is accustomed. This is a classic fish-out-of-water story that is very predictable but still some fun nonetheless. Much tension ensues during the early days of Sandra’s relocation as she struggles to understand how Bif could possibly be happy. However, over time, Sandra comes to realise that her sister seems completely content with her life, extracting joy from the simple things and devoting her life to various causes.

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As Sandra’s judgemental sense of superiority begins to thaw, she opens herself up to the possibility of finding new love with Charlie (Timothy Spall), a pot-smoking furniture restorer who lives on a boat. However, as is always the case, the path to true love is littered with obstacles which, in this case, include the fact that both Sandra and Charlie are still married to others. Whilst Sandra struggles to let go of the only life and love she has ever known, Charlie is left with little option given the circumstances with regard to his wife’s health. It is often the case that older people are mocked and ridiculed on screen and there is a bit of that here with Loncraine chasing the easy laughs, in this case working on the theory that senior citizens getting high is funny simply because they are old. A stoned septuagenarian is, apparently, comic gold. However, amid musings on love, happiness and mortality, there are some genuinely funny moments and it is Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) who gets the best lines as Jackie, a member of Bif’s dance class, a weekly gathering that is as much about friendship and support than it is about dancing.

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Whilst the script by Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft is riddled with clichés, chases easy laughs and signals every plot development well in advance, there is an authenticity in the design, from the furniture and handmade Christmas decorations in Bif’s flat to the boats moored on the canal.  Sure, death and terminal illness form part of the narrative and, whilst the film doesn’t shy away from the pain, the humour and sadness co-exist in a way that could teach us a lot about how we deal with death. Whilst a jaunt to Italy seems somewhat unnecessary and has seemingly been included purely as a pretext for a confession from Bif about her past that is a somewhat contrived and emotionally manipulative moment, Finding Your Feet is a pleasant, if somewhat predictable, comedy-drama that never really takes advantage of the wealth of talent within its midst.