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Duane Hopwood (2005)

R · 86 minutes

Directed by Matt Mulhern
Written by Matt Mulhern

 · David Schwimmer
 · Janeane Garofalo
 · Judah Friedlander
 · Susan Lynch
 · Dick Cavett

Review by Motion Pictures (Brian Johnson)

Screened at the 2005 BendFilm Festival

Duane Hopwood is a pit-boss at an Atlantic City casino.  It's his job to keep the peace when the gamblers get outraged as their money disappears.

And yet keeping the peace in his personal life is something at which Duane fails consistently.  He struggles with alcoholism, which in turn means he may not be allowed to visit his daughters without his ex-wife's express permission, and his job teeters on the edge because of a generous but thoughtless moment out on the casino floor.  Surrounded by friends who encourage and support him, Duane attempts to turn his life around before it's too late.




Duane Hopwood opened the BendFilm Festival in September of 2005, and it is a technically well-crafted film.  Not utterly original, but capably captured on film nonetheless.

Matt Mulhern's script and directing both give the film a certain authenticity.  There are real personalities inhabiting the story, not just ciphers following the dictates of the plot.  Duane's (David Schwimmer) conversations with his ex-wife (Janeane Garofalo) do not always erupt into violent shouting matches, something that many other writers of divorce scenarios seem to think are a necessity every single time.  Yes, Duane's roommate Anthony (Judah Friedlander) begins to really grate, but then I've known people like that, so it was a different kind of grating than, oh, Jar-Jar Binks.

Mulhern directs for a calm realism.  There are violent shouting matches, but they are judiciously saved for certain moments, so that the film does not simply shriek at us from beginning to end.  Most of the time, we simply follow Duane, through laughter and tears.  Mostly tears.  Like Ray and Sideways, we do spend most of the film watching our "hero" go downhill, which made for a depressing Opening Night at BendFilm.

Schwimmer and Garofalo successfully perform what they are given to do.  Garofalo has the bigger change from her usual material.  Her loud and biting-edge roles in films like Mystery Men and Big Trouble are left behind as she calmly plays a woman who, making the best decision she could, took her daughters and left her drunken sod of a husband.  The buzz at BendFilm was that we were going to see Schwimmer finally step out of his "Ross" persona from Friends and take on tougher material.  Well, yes ... but it's still Schwimmer.  Still his half-whining voice that was never meant to be listened to for more than half an hour.  And still the occasional wise-crack.  Replace Garofalo with Lisa Kudrow or Courtney Cox and you'd simply have an episode of Friends where Ross dealt with alcoholism.  But not quite as funny.

The real humor came from Dick Cavett's Uncle Fred, who frequently stopped by to invite Hopwood to Thanksgiving dinner.  Cavett inhabits his scenes as a senile, mumbling old man who keeps accidentally treading on Hopwood's sensitivities regarding the divorce.  The last time I saw Cavett was in Beetlejuice, where he played a jerk so well I was sure I'd never "like" any character he portrayed.  In Duane Hopwood he proves me wrong.

Although the film is currently making the rounds of independent film festivals, it does not look "independent."  Apart from a couple of shots that jiggle as though the cameraman is attempting to stifle a sneeze, the images are solidly delivered.  And while the story is "small," it feels as though the location scouts thoroughly blanketed Atlantic City.  We end up just about everywhere, from the glitzy casino to the squallid side streets.  Even the air is captured on film: There is a certain atmosphere around that boardwalk that can only really be felt by going there, and I felt it again watching Duane Hopwood.




Unfortunately, once we've had our chuckles at Uncle Fred and the handful of Ross's ... sorry, Hopwood's wry witticisms, there's not a whole lot left in this movie that is entertaining, or even just dramatically captivating.  The movie is eighty minutes or so of Schwimmer whining, drinking, staggering, crying, and struggling to prove he can still handle being a father. Yip ... pee.

We’ve seen every element of this film – comical sidekicks, weepy drunken collapses, courtroom dramatics, and heartfelt reconciliations – done better and presented elsewhere in a more entertaining fashion.   The film never rises above a plain, ordinary glance at a very uninspiring and downtrodden man.  True, I've never seen the drunk-on-self-rehab plot played out against a casino backdrop.  But that setting is not so integral that the story would collapse if you set it somewhere else.

And Thanksgiving??  Setting a story like this in the middle of an emotional holiday season is as trite and overdone as having a divorce be the central conflict.  I'm so tired of the divorce setting!  War of the Worlds, Big Trouble, Sideways, Bringing Down the House, Mrs. Doubtfire, and thousands of other films rely on divorce to set things in motion.  Certainly there are times where this setting works and brings creativity to the script (The Parent Trap), but it has become the #1 Cheap Trick in the screenwriter's collection of story motivators.  I vote that for the next decade, divorce not be an option in screenplays.  Widowers, traditional two-parent families, lovers, even gay couples!  Anything but divorce again!  It's really sad when independent filmmakers, the icons for original thinking, borrow the same worn-out story elements (I'm getting off my soapbox now.)



Duane Hopwood is well-made.  It is just also really boring.  It never rises above the mundane re-presentation of a story we've seen before, a story which wasn't really interesting those other times either.  This will not be a classic, nor even talked about within a couple of years.  Except perhaps by the most devoted Ross ... uh, Schwimmer fans.

942 Words · Published: 25 October 2005

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