There's a fine line between nostalgia and whining, and "The Lather Effect" has the most difficult time trying to find its place between the two volumes of execution. A drowsy look at the influence of youth, the purity of pop music, and the damages caused by uncontrollable sexual urges, "Lather" is a familiar snapshot of thirtysomething malaise, pulled together with a noticeable lack of dramatic refinement by director Sarah Kelly.
Throwing an '80s-themed weekend bash to counteract all the negativity and pressure of her life, Valinda (Connie Britton) has brought in all her friends and family (including Ione Skye, Eric Stoltz, David Herman, Sarah Clarke, Peter Facinelli, Tate Donovan, Caitlin Keats, and William Mapother) from near and far to bask in the glow of their youthful indifference. Trudging through memories and party games, the group finds that alcohol and rekindled tension open up their souls, revealing to each other hidden desires and major regrets. As the weekend plows on, the friends find their lives changed by such introspection, but can these relationships survive past innocent confession?
"Lather" is a film made with the purest of intentions. A valentine to '80's pop culture staples mixed with Gen-X suburban guilt, the picture is a straightforward character study, reminiscent of a film school thesis production where a hungry director vomits their every last artistic desire on the screen. It's tough to argue Kelly's passion for her film, but her filmmaking judgment is seriously out of whack.
To watch "Lather" is to be continually embarrassed. It starts with the characters, who interact like a newly-formed improvisational group, over-emphasizing their reactions so the camera will notice them. Never once did I feel like I was observing a collection of intimate, longstanding relationships. Instead, I was viewing some talented performers aggressively shoving themselves around to loosen up the material. It's this reveal of the artistic process that makes "Lather" feel hollow and insecure.
I also wasn't fond of Kelly's obsession with pop music cues. It's impressive to note how this clearly low-budget creation got their mitts on a large assortment of '80's classics (though usage of Twisted Sister's modern redo of "We're Not Gonna Take It" is inexcusable). It's depressing to note that the songs force the actors to break out into impromptu dance parties and lip-synching contests, turning "Lather" into a marathon of cringes and eye-rolls. If the actors can't make the relationships seem authentic, watching them invent "good times" makes me want to throw the DVD out of the nearest window.
Try to scrape past the retro goop, and Kelly's emotional intentions with "Lather" are a little more palatable. It's a sincere picture, with careful attention paid to matters of broken hearts and aging regret. However, it's painful to see the film's quality not meet its ambitions. Kelly doesn't provide the proper weight to this collection of fudged sexual momentum, coulda-been relationships, and marital-comfort strain. Her direction is too lenient, too forgiving to make a psychological dent, rendering her characters a bunch of navel-gazing nitwits instead of yearning, sympathetic figures. It's needless to say at this point, but "Lather Effect" gets old real fast.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), detail is in short supply on this DVD. The image quality is extremely soft, artificially trying to conjure retro warmth, but robbing the experience of visual depth. Color has been drained away, and it doesn't seem like an artistic choice.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is best with dialogue, keep the combative conversations easy to understand, especially when everyone is talking over each other. Soundtrack cuts are given life in the surround channels, but nothing is allowed interesting dimension. A 2.0 mix is also included.
A feature-length commentary by director Sarah Kelly, editor Darren Ayers, and producer/actor Eric Stoltz opens with a five-minute prologue detailing the real-life '80's party that inspired the film. From there, the team embarks on a calm commentary track revealing production tidbits, expanding on how Tate Donovan skipped the rehearsal process; how Tate Donovan disliked Stoltz's choice to wear a gold tooth and adopt a surfer dude voice; the miracle of Dave Herman improvisations; the explanation of the "cock rule;" and extensive discussions of character motivations and actor relationships.
"The Making of 'The Lather Effect'" (16:07) really underlines the John Hughes inspirations and gave birth to this film. Interviewing cast and crew, this BTS featurette is more homegrown and goofy than standard promotional nonsense, showcasing the tight feeling of community and thematic compassion that formed over shooting.
Deleted Scenes (20:23) are smartly excised pieces of character interaction, not development. No gems here, just useless bits of comedy and mood.
"The Cameron Effect" (7:04) explores Kelly's obsession with her cinematic hero Cameron Crowe. It's a short valentine, based on the suspense of whether or not Crowe will visit the set.
"The Importance of Being an Earnest P.A." (4:43) traces Kelly's life as a production assistant, and how those years formed relationships with talent and shaped her directorial style.
"The Lather Effect" is a strikeout; an aggressive nostalgia piece hoping to bathe in the heavy gravy of golden memories and destructive romantic fixations to appeal to Gen-Xers longing for their youth. It's "Big Chill" without the depth or "The Wedding Singer" without the laughs.
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