It took me several days to figure out why Peter and Vandy doesn't quite work, but I think I've finally got it: the vision of its creator doesn't mesh with the execution of the film. Writer/director/producer Jay DiPietro has created another quintessential "21st century romantic comedy", one where the valleys of a relationship get as much time as the peaks. Specifically, his goal appears to be illustrating how the bad moods, nitpicking and fighting can be a natural, acceptable part of co-existing; a worthwhile struggle in order to get to the good moments. It's hard to pinpoint a single element that isn't working in DiPietro's favor, but something about his movie doesn't gel when the whole thing is put together.
One of the film's more interesting elements is that Peter (Jason Ritter) and Vandy (Jess Weixler), even by the end, are still practically strangers to the audience. We don't learn about who they are, aside from the character traits that can be gleaned from their conversations and interactions, but what their relationship is like, and the way they act when the two of them are together. The film basically tracks their relationship from Meet Cute to breakup, without any central conflicts other than the struggle of staying together, and if I remember correctly, there are only four scenes in the film without both Peter and Vandy (two for each character, and one of them is very brief). It's refreshing to see a film about a couple that doesn't siphon away at least a quarter of its running time to best friends or co-workers; even though Peter and Vandy only runs 79 minutes, credits and all, it still shines the spotlight directly on its title characters. The downside is that Ritter and Weixler essentially end up with more control over the film's tone than DiPietro, one of the key areas where he seems to have dropped the ball.
Most people probably know Weixler from the cult horror film Teeth, and she's just as good here, putting a lot of bold, conflicting emotions through her thoughtful, expressive eyes. Sometimes, it's wonderful to just watch her sit and think, like she does in an early morning scene where she watches Peter sleeping on her couch. Ritter does his best to keep up, and although his character is saddled with playing out several of the screenplay's issues (more on this later), as well as a fakey character tic where Peter tends to over-apologize, he does alright. His performance is a little bland, but he gets a lot of credit for scoring the best moment in the movie, in a five-second series of edits near the middle of the third act. These three shots are artfully chosen (I wouldn't be shocked to hear they were DiPietro's first mental image of the movie, before the script was even written), but they just wouldn't work without the look on Ritter's face; it's a poignant moment really sums the movie's goals up in a nutshell. The two actors also have solid romantic chemistry, although their bond is defused in a few scenes by persistent wind (nothing takes the life out of film dialogue like having to yell it over the weather).
DiPietro and his editor Geoffrey Richman edit the film as a chronological jumble that's even more disorganized than (500) Days of Summer, and once again, I don't understand why. In a film like Pulp Fiction (no doubt the inspiration for this technique when it comes to many of today's directors), there's some unique, "movie logic" tension created in the way that editor Sally Menke and Quentin Tarantino rearrange the timeline, but the same can't be said for Peter and Vandy, which would turn the same rocks over no matter what order it unfolds in. The point may or may not be to surprise the audience with how things play out at the film's conclusion, yet the most important of these scenes would occur at the film's climax either way, so the payoff doesn't work any differently in this scrambled version.
What the film really lacks, however, is balance. I totally "get" the idea that a relationship is as much about pain as it is pleasure, but DiPietro piles on more dark moments than I cared for, and it starts to seem like the film isn't in chronological order because it'd be hard to watch all the fighting in one go. The intensity of said fights also plays a factor. In one scene, Peter comes home after a stressful job interview and eventually gets into a yelling match with Vandy over the way she prepares a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a fight that ultimately requires Ritter to get seriously hateful, which he does. My guess is that DiPietro is trying to test his audience by seeing how cruel the characters can get while still retaining enough likability that people would want to see them together. There's probably some artistic merit to this idea, but it's a big risk, and DiPietro runs recklessly along the edge. Some people just aren't meant to be together, and during scenes like this, I think the audience might write Peter and Vandy off as two of those people, a possibility that appears to go against the film's goals.
I admired Peyton Reed's The Break-Up, with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, for having a refreshing devotion to harsh reality. That film's merits as a comedy are up to the viewer, but when the third act rolled around, it looked straight at the cold, regrettable, and hurtful moments at the tail end of a doomed relationship and didn't flinch. DiPietro clearly set out to achieve a similar feeling of brutal honesty, and there are fleeting glimpses of the movie he imagined, but the movie he actually made has more to offer about truth about the beginning and afterlife of Peter and Vandy's relationship, and very quickly, you wish he'd spend more time there, in the charming, bittersweet moments, than he does down in the dirt.
The DVD, Video and Audio
Strand sent over Peter and Vandy in a paper sleeve, so there's a possibility that this otherwise finished-looking DVD will not match final product, and I'm unable describe the DVD artwork. If this is final product, however, a major strike against Strand for not including any subtitle tracks on this disc.
Only the movie's original theatrical trailer is included, along with bonus trailers for The Missing Person, How About You, Puccini For Beginners, and Downloading Nancy.
A failure is a film that doesn't succeed, but one that's merely unsuccessful is a film that tried and overshot its goals. Peter and Vandy is certainly not a failure, and even has a handful of emotionally solid moments from both Weixler and Ritter, ones with the potential to stay with the viewer even when the rest of the film fades. If you're on the lookout for a left-of-mainstream indie picture and you're more concerned with effort than accomplishment, this might be worth a rental.
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