Review: THE ARGUMENT, Trifling Theatrical Experimentation

Robert Schwartzman's safe Indie Comedy features a fun ensemble cast

Editor, Australia; Melbourne, Australia (@Kwenton)
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Review: THE ARGUMENT, Trifling Theatrical Experimentation

Robert Schwartzman (Dreamland, The Unicorn), part of film family royalty (brother is Jason Schwartzman, cousin is Sofia Coppola etc.) is relatively new to Hollywood's Indies. His third feature The Argument continues the trend of approachable genre experiments inherent in his previous films. Unlike his relatives' work, the upper middle-class malaise and crisis situations his thirty-something characters find themselves in never cross into weighty drama, surrealism or quirky philosophizing. Remaining grounded in awkwardness and ego, Robert Schwartzman's comedy is mined from a unique brand of insecure cringe, but ultimately his films are tinged with basic feel-good cliche; as a result they lack impact.

The same can be said of The Argument, a film that takes place almost entirely in the humble apartment of an amateur theatre director Jack (Dan Fogler) and lead actress and girlfriend muse Lisa (Emma Bell). They have just finished a play, and have invited Jack’s literary agent Brett (Danny Pudi) and his entertainment lawyer partner Sarah (Maggie Q) to celebrate, and spruik Lisa for representation. When lead actor Paul (Tyler James Williams) and Australian girlfriend Trina (Cleopatra Coleman) gatecrash, the evening quickly devolves into an amusing tête-à-tête between each couple, fuelled by alcohol and flirtatious notions between both Lisa and Paul. This sends Jack spiralling into a jealous simmering fury of passive aggressiveness, and although he plans on proposing, Jack’s insecurity overwhelms him and the night ends poorly with a vague argument.

Although the evening is fine cringe-comedy thanks to the ensemble cast, Jack decides to relive the evening the next night. Reluctantly his hungover colleagues return, and like a scripted play both Jack and Lisa repeat every detail, with the same food, drink, acting and conversation. Suddenly the evening takes a theatrical turn, with everyone playing up their ego. The second evening is also ruined however when further repressed feelings and insecurities spill out. Somehow, Jack then repeats the evening the next night, and the next, all the while fine-tuning his new script; has life becomes art?

The craft of theatre and the creative albeit self-titled genius of Jack causes a kind of ego death; nothing as dramatic or surreal as expected, instead a watered-down suspension of belief as to why these people who practically despise each other at this stage would keep returning. Then there is the fact that this is not about an argument at all, Lisa cannot even remember what the disagreement was about. The Argument is about the process; creation of something from a deeply cynical blend of male gaze neuroticism, bias perspective and industry slights. Each character is a specific stereotype of a burned out creative or vulture money-maker corporate. Paul’s girlfriend Trina is a fangirl of the actor, her shallowness and jealousy plays hilariously off everyone else. Although not explicitly expressed each guest is now an actor, playing a role, the apartment a stage.

This chamber piece of repeated, slightly maddened conversations in the living area, then dining room reveal the increasingly desperate and insecure positions of each person. Aggressive toasts, unchecked egos and the insular claustrophobic nature of the industry resonates injoke levels of resentment, and when Jack realises his experiment is not working, he puts his script to work in a much more meta way that is easily the highlight of the film. 

Slightly disappointing then that The Argument remains flatly directed throughout, a lazy montage of night after night lacks the impact of tying up what comes after, and some great comedy timing from the cast is sometimes ruined by the editing. Bold ideas and sharp script one-liners that hint at something more substantial are not expanded upon, the film is poorly paced and wraps up far too neatly, and as a result feels rushed by its final act.

The Argument has flashes of surreal and satirical nightmares, and like Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, it is an elitist dinner party that cannot conventionally seem to end. It is too slight and simple to commit to elevating its potential on the screen, despite all this it remains a decent comedy with a fun cast.

The Argument releases in theaters and on demand from September 4th, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

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