A Short History of Decay (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Erika (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is tired of her boyfriend’s lack of forward momentum in life and so she decides to break up with him. It turns out her timing could not be any worse because the very next day, Nathan (Bryan Greenberg), a writer who put his first novel on hold to work on a play, receives news that his father (Harris Yulin), who lives in Florida with his wife (Linda Lavin), has had a stroke and is in the hospital. Nathan takes the next flight out of New York City and begs his girlfriend if they could put their relationship problems on pause.
Written and directed by Michael Maren, “A Short History of Decay” is a nice domestic comedy-drama—and instances when I am forced to describe that a movie is “nice” is almost always not a compliment. It is slightly amusing, even moving at times, but it is too relaxed, bordering on bland, with what it is attempting to communicate.
Look at the title and then consider whose perspective the story is being told. Already there is a disconnect. Is it supposed to be ironic? It may be. But is it effective? I was not convinced entirely. The reason is because Nathan’s problems with his girlfriend taken side-by-side with his struggles with being a writer who lacks focus and inspiration simply pale compared to topics like dealing with mortality. The picture attempts to excel at both but the screenplay does not function on a high enough level.
The word “decay” comes in many forms in this story. Most obvious are the feelings that our protagonist holds toward his parents—more specifically, slowly realizing that they will not be around forever. His father is beginning to have serious health problems. His mother, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, has started to exhibit middle phase characteristics of the condition. Decay: his father’s body, his mother’s mind. Nathan wonders if it would be better for him to stay indefinitely.
The deterioration of Nathan and Erika’s relationship is present but not dealt with fully. The early scenes in NYC are effective because we get the impression that Erika has a good reason to feel the way she does. One of the things I dislike in bad comedies is simply reducing one of the partners to a horrible human being. Here, though we are supposed to side with Nathan, Erika does not come off like the relationship she is walking away from holds no value to her. I would like to have known more about the couple.
Decay also applies to Nathan’s dream of being a writer. There is a key conversation in the latter half of the film when Nathan goes on a date. The woman tells him that men his age, thirty-five, should already have a career—or at the very least a stable job. The scene can be enjoyed because instead of the material taking a catty or defensive route, Nathan responds as though deep down inside he already knows this. And yet it is not entirely clear. At that moment in time, we get a taste of how lost he is with respect to what he really wants to do or become.
In the end, I think I know what the material is hoping to communicate—and that is the problem. Due to a lack of connective tissue among subplots compounded with a main character who is genuinely lost, we are left with an undefined point of view. In other words, it is up to the viewer to invest in the characters through his or her own experiences. For instance, I was able to relate to it on some level because I have known people with dementia. That aspect I found fascinating. Still, it is highly likely that young and/or people who have yet to experience life will not find anything particularly interesting or challenging in this benign comedy.