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Movie Review

Monogamy

Hipsters, improvisation don’t mix in ‘Monogamy’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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There are certain filmmakers who should have their Cassavetes card revoked, and on the evidence of “Monogamy,’’ Dana Adam Shapiro has joined their ranks. Like James Franco and other members of his highly caffeinated generation, Shapiro is a talented multi-hyphenate. He writes novels, starts magazines, records music, co-directs documentaries. Well, one documentary, but it was 2005’s brilliant “Murderball,’’ about wheelchair rugby. He’s from Newton, too; just another overachieving whiz kid from the western suburbs.

In his first dramatic film, Shapiro comes to grief not from too little ambition but from too much. “Monogamy’’ is a story about pre-wedding jitters, voyeurism, infidelity, and photography. It takes place in hipster Brooklyn — a secondary character runs one of those bars that requires a goatee for admittance — and the dialogue is largely improvised. That can be a problem, and so it is here.

The central couple is attractive in a generic Williamsburg way: Theo (Chris Messina), a wedding photographer, and Nat (Rashida Jones), who apparently has a career auditioning for open-mike nights. They’re engaged to be married in a few months, and the business with the invitations is starting to freak out Theo. So are the excuses Nat makes to not have sex. The relationship is chic on the surface, bleak underneath. Theo and Nat are one of those pairs that have run out of things to say to each other.

Shapiro is sharp enough to know that happens to most couples sooner or later, and the scenes in which Theo tries to coax skittish brides and grooms into faking togetherness are uncomfortable and on point. To keep his creativity cooking, the hero runs a sideline called “Gumshoot,’’ hiring himself out for paparazzi street sessions in which he stalks clients and photographs them unposed and unguarded. One customer signs her e-mails Subgirl (Meital Dohan), and she’s a blond hottie who likes to masturbate in the park and have back-alley sex with a hulking married lover (Paul Diomede). Theo, needless to say, is hooked.

“Monogamy’’ sets up a nifty idea that it doesn’t follow through: the existential 1966 thriller “Blow-Up’’ retooled for an era of digital photography and editing software. Obsessing over Subgirl’s adventures — is she for real? Is she playing to him? — Theo keeps enlarging and rearranging the photos, zooming in on details, desperate to find a narrative through-line that will reveal the truth of the matter, or the truth he wants to hear. The actual truth, when it comes, isn’t nearly as surprising as Shapiro thinks, but the notion of an unhappy man reorganizing reality until it meets his fantasies is unexpected and rich.

Nat, meanwhile, has been left high and dry by both her fiance and the movie, which sidelines her in the hospital with a minor infection (her doctor is an amusingly attentive goofball played by Neal Huff). The few scenes the couple have together, building to the one they’ve been trying to avoid, are awkward in ways Shapiro thinks are honest and true. To us out in the seats, they’re awkward in ways that are awkward, and not because Theo is unsympathetic. On the contrary, he’s unsympathetic in ways many men won’t want to admit they recognize. There’s a very dark comedy about neurotic male vanity somewhere in here, but Shapiro hasn’t chosen to make it. By the movie’s end, you may wish he had.

I’m betting this director has one or two great films in him, though, once he trusts his instincts as a writer. Watching failed improvisation — and the climactic scene in “Monogamy’’ is a textbook case of actors straining mightily to find words a decent screenwriter might have provided — I always find myself thinking of Oscar’s belief in “The Odd Couple’’ that the gravy “just comes when you cook the meat.’’ Shapiro and his cast cook like mad, but they’re one ingredient short of a full meal.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

MONOGAMY

Directed by: Dana Adam Shapiro

Written by: Shapiro and Evan M. Wiener

Starring: Chris Messina, Rashida Jones, Meital Dohan

At: West Newton

Running time: 96 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: language, sexual situations)

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