On the short list of people I root for in Hollywood, Frank Whaley has always been near the top of the heap. A fine actor with solid turns in "The Doors," "Swimming with Sharks," and "Career Opportunities" (a comedy that's a colossal guilty pleasure of mine) to his name, Whaley has spent the last decade attempting to build up a directing career. With "Joe the King" and "The Jimmy Show," Whaley showcased tenuous but workable gifts behind the camera, finding inviting nuances to build intriguing dramatic themes with. In "New York City Serenade," Whaley swings and misses, scripting himself a complex tale of juvenile antics rubbing against weighty adult concerns, only to cast the film with a trio of actors who are incapable of communicating any depth whatsoever.
Engaged to Lynn (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), aspiring filmmaker Owen (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is caught in a rut of depression, amplified by his friendship with lothario rock drummer Ray (Chris Klein). The two men seek only drinking and carnal delights to pass the time, with Ray talking his way in and out of dicey situations and Owen lost to his own self-doubt. Caught cheating, Owen is dumped by Lynn around the time of a film festival appearance to exhibit his beloved short movie. Reluctantly taking Ray along for the trip, Owen finds his world crumbling around him, leaving the despondent filmmaker to surmise that his longstanding friendship is perhaps the most cancerous element of his life.
"New York City Serenade" means well enough and it appears to be reaching for a cathartic mood of interpersonal solvency that traditionally provides appealing screen returns and outstanding performance opportunity. Whaley scripts carefully, erecting a New York state of mind that boxes in these characters as they battle with vocational humiliations and the routines of childhood now spilled over to adulthood. The contrast is inviting, the emotional momentum is there, and the dramatic situations are ripe with potential...and then the viewer is faced with Klein, Prinze Jr., and Sigler doing all the heavy lifting. How deflating.
I do hand Whaley some credit for making lemonade about of these lemons with his meaningful atmosphere, but with a film as difficult to articulate as "Serenade," the material is too important to be left in the hands of these performers. Sigler gets off light by handing in a one-note performance of pleasing interior burn, but Prinze Jr. and Klein? Surely Whaley was held at gunpoint when he agreed to bring these guys on. As the two boys fighting the baby steps of maturity at every turn, Klein and Prinze Jr. are engaged in a constant war with their own limitations. With Prinze Jr., it means observing an actor attempt to convey remorse with a set of predetermined (and well rehearsed) facial reactions, while Klein is a completely off course projecting pure slime as a greasy, smooth-talking, panty-removing specialist nursing a clichéd drinking problem. As usual, Klein is a vacant lot in a role that demands incredible concentration, even tanking the one surefire challenge any actor could've nailed: the cool-dude drumming face.
Shot with an aim towards lived-in big city locations and interior mischief, the anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation matches the low-budget intent of the film quite well. Colors are preserved and detail is visible, with black levels never a nuisance. A few moments shimmer with artificial image tinkering, but it rarely overpowers the presentation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio effort here is a basic, routine listening experience suiting a small independent film. Surrounds get very little to do besides articulate the sounds of the city, with the soundtrack cuts failing to truly inspire. The dialogue is offered crisply, and with a character-driven story as this, that's all one should ask for.
English SDH subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with filmmaker Frank Whaley, and actors Ben Schwartz, Alexander Chaplin, and Heather Bucha jumps right out of the gate with a warm sense of humor, showing more energy and genuine camaraderie on the track than the film itself can muster. Whaley is a motormouth, burning through anecdotes and hardships with Las Vegas nightclub timing, making the commentary a wild ride of laughs and filmmaking insight. I would even go so far as to recommend a first time viewing with just the commentary on.
"Behind the Scenes of 'New York City Serenade'" (14:07) is the standard making-of featurette, interviewing Prinze Jr., Sigler, and Whaley (who looks like death here, worrying me a little) on the filming experience and creative motivations. More somber and clinical than the commentary, the piece only fills a visual need to see the talent in conversation mode.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"Serenade" isn't interested in building a complicated plot, instead it hopes to find solace in reactions. Whaley deserves credit for aiming his screenplay in interesting directions, especially in the end, when Owen and Ray face a real future apart from each other. Whaley urges the characters to uncomfortable choices, and I appreciated the uncompromising intent. However, watching it all unfold is a different matter, and while "New York City Serenade" holds the foundation for greatness, the rotten thespian effort torpedoes the whole shebang immediately.
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