Between Us (2012)
★ / ★★★★
“Between Us,” based on a play by Joe Hortua,” is likely to be compared to Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” because it involves two couples, one pair being alcoholic, and the fights that transpire over a period of time. However, the film is more appropriate to be compared to Norman Jewison’s “Dinner with Friends,” also based on a play, because the audience observe the couples during two time points: one when Grace (Julia Stiles) and Carlo (Taye Diggs) are happy but Sharyl (Melissa George) and Joel (David Harbour) are miserable and the other when the tables are turned.
For the most part, it is an exhausting experience to sit through director Dan Mirvish’ ineffective but well-meaning picture. Although the right performers are hired for the job, the script simply lacks cinematic appeal. This is not an uncommon misstep when it comes play-turned-movie pieces of work but when it is made, the result is more uncomfortable than listening to nails being scraped on a chalkboard. We never forget that we are watching actors rather than being invested in deeply flawed people with serious personality or psychological issues.
The structure holds back the material’s power severely. Instead of focusing on one time point and then moving onto another, it opts to move back and forth. Although understandable because it hopes to draw certain parallels between the couples, it is the less subtle approach. The decision to move forward and back in time eliminates the tension that builds during a drawn-out scene. It does not help that characters are allowed to go outside and create distance from one another. There is a reason why the best movies of its type force characters to stay in one house. It allows the claustrophobia to build until the inevitable implosion.
There are moments when I felt the performers themselves are aware that the script is not quite right. They hide this by overacting using their body language or exaggerating certain lines when being still and not blinking or talking in a soft but commanding tone can communicate much more. Woody Allen’s near masterpiece “Interiors” is an excellent example of actors seemingly not doing much—often staring into space or through another person—but just about every emotion is hit with precision.
I had a difficult time believing that Carlo, Sharyl, and Joel went to elite private schools. Despite having the right type of clothes and unfulfilled ambitions, I did not pick up a whiff of sophistication from them. For instance, when they get into arguments, there is no tactic designed to ensnare the other to support one’s claims in a roundabout fashion. It is almost always about trying to make someone feel bad or guilty. It would have been more fun if the conversations played out like an intense chess match.
What makes these two couples special? Surely it is not just because all four of them are friends. We have seen that kind of story too many times before. Even if it were, the material should have strived to separate itself from the pack. More importantly, what do the filmmakers want us to extract from this story? That even the best of friends can turn against each other given enough time for jealousy to take root? That marriage, especially when a lack of money is involved, is a lot of hard work? If so, these are lessons we already know. How is the picture worthy of our time?