Movie Review: Flannel Pajamas
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Love can be a battleground, and despite its homey-sounding title and gentle, almost nonchalant air, Jeff Lipsky's "Flannel Pajamas" gives us a series of messages from the front.
The main characters, Stuart Sawyer (Justin Kirk) and Nicole Reilly (Julianne Nicholson), are a young New York pair who meet one night in a diner, click, fall in love, woo and get married - despite the fact that they have cultural, religious and family differences that may possibly spell trouble later on.
Stuart is a New Yorker; Nicole, more conservative, is from the West. Stuart is Jewish, Nicole is Christian. Stuart's family tends to be openhearted and unbuttoned, especially Stuart's pleasantly but sometimes frighteningly manic brother Jordan (Jamie Harrold, in the film's second-best performance). Nicole's family tends to keep problems to themselves. Stuart is a success at his marketing and promotion job. Nicole works best on her own, as in the little catering business she sets up.
They are both similar in one respect, though. They're upper-middle-class kids who are a bit spoiled: an easygoing prince and an uptight princess set loose on the world. As their relationship flowers and matures, all the things kept buried under their separate veneers of quick-witted charm begin to fall apart. So does their marriage.
With his tall, lanky good looks and narcissistic slouch, Justin Kirk's Stuart is a self-satisfied, smirking guy who always seems to be in such control that it shocks us a smidgeon when we see his vulnerability and flaws. Nicole, super-sensitive to slights and a bit of a sulker, is self-absorbed too. Both of them tend to blow up or simmer long over relative trifles: whether or not they'll get a dog, or whether they respect each other's career decisions. They have one genuinely major disagreement: whether or not they'll have a baby. (She wants one; he doesn't).
It seems at first that they love each other so much, it all shouldn't matter. But it does, because, as Lipsky shows, these lovers are both too selfish, too used to being in control.
Robert Altman once said, apropos of "Short Cuts," that whether or not a movie has a happy ending depends entirely on where it ends. That's certainly true of "Flannel Pajamas." There are any number of moments when the movie could climax and leave us with the feeling that things will work out - at the wedding reception where best man Jordan raises a memorable toast, or after the film's most memorable and hair-raising scene, Stuart's brutally candid conversation at a hospital with Nicole's mother, Elizabeth (Rebecca Schull in the film's best performance). But "Flannel Pajamas" goes past the conventional resolution point, cuts deeper.
Sometimes a movie improves on second viewing, and I liked "Flannel Pajamas" better when I screened it again, after first watching it at the Chicago Film Festival. It's a low-budget film, with visually uninteresting backgrounds. But the movie's main strengths - its writing and acting - don't really need that kind of support. It even may be good that "Flannel Pajamas" looks a little drab and ordinary, that the supposedly plush environs of the apartments and houses don't impress us much.
Lipsky has directed one other feature, 1997's "Childhood's End," but he's been long involved in distribution in the worlds of art and independent film, with New Yorker, Samuel Goldwyn and October (which he co-founded) for several decades. He's an ex-associate of John Cassavetes and it's Cassavetes whom he most emulates here.
He gets a sense of human warfare and of giddy humor about to collapse into despair that shows that Lipsky, like Cassavetes, wants to dig beneath the skin. The men in the film tend to be more vulnerable than the women; that slashing revelation scene between Stuart and Elizabeth is almost worth the whole movie.
Do we feel sorry for Nicole and Stuart? I didn't - but the second time around, it didn't push me away from the movie. Why can't they make up their minds, step outside their skins? That's the quiet deceptive little pitfall of "Flannel Pajamas."
Directed and written by Jeff Lipsky; photographed by Martina Radwan; edited by Sara Corrigan; production designed by Len X. Clayton; music by Paul Hsu; produced by Jonathan Gray, Brian Devine and Jason Orans. A Gigantic Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:04. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for nudity, sexuality, mature themes and language).
Stuart - Justin Kirk
Nicole - Julianne Nicholson
Elizabeth - Rebecca Schull
Jordan - Jamie Harrold
Tara - Michelle Federer
Bill - Tom Bower