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He fell out of a plane and into their lives.
Adapted from a short play of the same name, Adopt a Sailor is an introspective and bittersweet examination into the lives of an Upper East Side couple on the brink of romantic and spiritual immolation, like a post-9/11 Six Degrees of Separation without the flim-flammery.
Facts of the Case
During Fleet Week, a young sailor from Arkansas (Ethan Peck, 10 Things I Hate About You) disembarks in New York City. It's his first time in the big city. He heads to the home of Patricia (Bebe Neuwirth, Cheers) and Richard (Peter Coyote, The 4400) who have agreed to "adopt" him for the evening—treat him to a fancy dinner, enjoy his company, give him a place to stay for the night, and show him around the big city.
A quiet dinner soon turns heated. Tempers flare, old wounds tear open, and embarrassing secrets are revealed. The sailor is just looking for something to eat, but Patricia and Richard are looking for something more, something meaningful in their lives.
A simple film about complicated emotions and relationships, Adopt a Sailor is the kind of straightforward and intimate film that flourishes in the independent cinema scene. Its roots on the small stage are immediately apparent: three cast members, one apartment, and a lot of talking. Surprisingly, the narrative adapts to the small screen quite well, largely on the strength of its strong writing and acting.
It is often hard to separate the artist from the art. Adapted from Charles Evered's own experiences as a sailor called into New York City during the 9/11 crisis, the original draft of the story was submitted in an exhibition of short plays about the 9/11 attacks, then produced as a 10-minute short with a rotating cast, then expanded to a full-length production, and finally adapted into film. Adopt a Sailor wisely opts to write about post-terrorism anxieties by not writing about them, at least not directly. It focuses instead on the after-effects of a seemingly happy married couple with money and status who suddenly realize how uncertain they are about life and the world around them. Imagine Don DeLillo by way of Voltaire mashed up with My Dinner with Andre, and you'd be in the right ballpark. Actually, I'd totally pay to see that movie. Someone should get on that. I think you'll find my royalty rates are extremely reasonable.
This is a film of few expectations, but not in a bad way. On paper, the story is overly simplistic; a sailor on leave "adopted" for the evening by a wealthy NYC couple who spend the evening chatting. The thematic content is predictable, even a touch blasé: the emotional troubles of the privileged white coming to grips with a complex world. We meet Patricia and Richard and immediately find them unlikeable and at each other's throats, gnarled and twisted by years of a loveless marriage. The unnamed sailor wanders into the lives, unintentionally acting as a kind of barometer to measure the pressures of their existence. Suddenly, they see their marriage and see the world they live in, the pleasures and small triumphs, anxieties, and disappointments, all of it. By the end of the evening, the couple is irrecoverably changed; all the while, the sailor sits serenely eating Cocoa Puffs like a country bumpkin Buddha.
It's a simple premise, but Adopt a Sailor manages to make an emotional connection quickly. Within the first five minutes, I had the plot figured out entirely and was bored; within ten minutes, the characters had me endeared. The sailor is quiet, honest, and genuine, a literal poster boy for the most endearing and admirable qualities of small-town America. He even fell out of a plane and survived, much to the shock and awe of his dining companions. Patricia is cold and waspish, but fiery and passionate in her repressions; her life is routine and dull and she misses the fire of youth. Richard is fiercely intimidating in his intellectual superiority; a thinking man obsessed with his own weakness and how to define masculinity in a modern world. He is a filmmaker who makes films, not movies—movies make money, but his do not. The elaborate lifestyle of the couple is maintained by Patricia and her money, which both emboldens and emasculates Richard.
Bebe Neuwirth reprises her role in the theatrical adaptation, a part which she played in both the abridged and full-length play runs—and knocks the role out the park. This is the kind of part she can sleepwalk her way through, all waspy, sardonic, and strong-willed. It is a natural and immediate fit. Peter Coyote does an admirable turn as the husband, but tends to overact some of the more emotive elements in his performance. In his defense, the sequences are pretty over-the-top. Ethan Peck is the surprise here, a young actor with little experience other than a few television roles. On the surface, the role is simple; he says "gee golly" and "yes sir" and "no sir" and little else, but there's a subtlety to his performance that suggests great talent. He sells the part. It's easy to believe he is just a good-natured sailor from small-town Arkansas.
A barebones presentation, the DVD is free from all features, supplements, and subtitles, and has a good-looking but unfortunately matted letterbox transfer. Colors are natural and the transfer is clean, so it does the job well enough—it is after all just three people in an apartment. Still, how hard is it to kick out an anamorphic transfer in this day and age of HDTV? Audio comes in Dolby stereo, which gets the job done; dialogue is clear and there are no noticeable issues to offend audiences. All told, it's a simple presentation for a straightforward film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Penned as a post-9/11 meditation, Adopt a Sailor has a predictable amount of neurosis and anxiety at play, disorientation over a world suddenly turned on its head, as well as a certain level of self-indulgence that boils to a head during a passionate monologue in the final act of the film raging against the lunacy of the world. In an otherwise balanced and subtly nuanced film, this outburst feels heavy handed, distractingly so.
A charmingly straightforward character drama, Adopt a Sailor is that rare gift of independent cinema: a film more than sum of its simplistic parts that speaks to genuine emotions, anxieties, and profundities. I liked it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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