Touchy Feely (2013)
★ / ★★★★
It is difficult to believe that “Touchy Feely” is from the same writer-director as the fresh, funny, and wonderful “Humpday.” While the latter is full of characters that feel very human, the former offers not one believable character, let alone someone we want to get to know beyond the surface level. The figures on screen are nothing but walking caricatures, solely defined by the anxieties that plague them.
Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a massage therapist with happy clients because she is good at her job and she has a personality that makes customers want to return. However, when she develops an aversion to touching people’s skin, her livelihood is threatened and she begins to feel inadequate. This takes a toll on her relationship with Jesse (Scoot Mcnairy), her rebound guy. Conversely, prior to Abby’s breakdown, her brother, Paul (Josh Pais), is barely able to keep his dental practice running due to a lack of customers. Unlike Abby, Paul is awkward, withdrawn, not very good at relating with others. Abby’s misfortune proves to be the beginning of Paul’s great luck: word has gone around that each person he touches is magically cured.
Perhaps the situation is supposed to be mildly amusing because it certainly does not work as a drama. First, it lacks a dramatic core. While the central relationship involves a pair of siblings who cannot be any more different, we never believe that they care for one another. When they sit to have dinner together, I saw actors spewing out lines instead of a family who is trying to make it work. Second, the screenplay fails to provide good reasons as to why we should care about its main and supporting players. As a result, sitting through the picture is like listening to a bunch of strangers whining about their problems. I thought they all needed to see a counselor.
The subplots are awkward and lack energy. Jenny (Ellen Page), Abby’s niece, has a crush on Jesse. But then there is an appendage involving Jennt wanting to leave the nest to go to school but feeling guilty that her father will not approve. One or the other requires focus. If she has no interest in being a dental assistant, then what is she interested in? Where does she see herself after college? If the material chooses to explore the crush, what does Jenny see in Jesse exactly? How might her feelings for Jesse change her seemingly close relationship with Abby? The screenplay does not bother with specifics and so there is no drama worth looking into.
When not even Allison Janney, playing a woman who can detect people’s energy, can save the movie, then that is saying something. “Touchy Feely” is a complete misfire—an interminable bore. I was mystified as to what the writer-director, Lynn Shelton, hoped to accomplish. I wondered if she watched the movie and was absolutely convinced that her work was worth other people’s time.
A note to all filmmakers: If you want to make a personal project that you think will touch the viewers or connect with it somehow, write beyond skeletal characteristics. Provide specifics. Do not rest on irony or a one-note joke. However, if you wish to make a personal project for sake of getting it out of your system without it being cinematically qualified, feel free to do so. But keep it in your house.