While Judge Bill Gibron enjoyed this trip back to the '80s, it did remind him of one too many lonely evenings "dancing with himself."
Sometimes, the Only Way to Get Over Your Past is to Re-Live It
It's the morning after their big "Come as You Were" reunion/blow out, and for these former Pali High School classmates, the dawn brings anxiety, contentment, and hangovers. Organizer Valinda (Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights) is feeling the worst of it, her head aching and her house destroyed by the revelry. This won't make her lawyer husband Will (Tate Donavon, The OC) happy. Friends Claire (Sarah Clarke, 24), Katrina (Caitlin Keats, Kill Bill Vol.2), and Zoey (Ione Skye, Say Anything) are on hand to help, although all are dealing with their own individual crises. Zoey in particular is going through a rough patch with her husband, Valinda's former flame Jack (William Mapother, In the Bedroom). Toss in an ex-child star named Corey (David Herman, Office Space) and a local lifeguard who always seemed to hang around the fringes of their clique (Eric Stoltz, Some Kind of Wonderful), and you've got the makings of one revelation-filled forty-eight hours. Indeed, after two days of booze, closeness, and confessions, these friends will find the inspiration to put their problematic pasts to rest once and for all.
Combining wistful '80s nostalgia with winsome middle-aged droning, The Lather Effect wears its far too obvious influences on its Blitz kid/Valley Girl sleeves. In a narrative where no character wants to act their age, let alone their IQ, we get the Big Chill's sense of passing youth, John Hughes' Breakfast Club psychology, and enough forced confrontations to fill a week of Lifetime Movie Channel programming. Given a genial, gentle glow by filmmaker Sarah Kelly (responsible for the documentary Full Tilt Boogie, which focused on the production of Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Til Dawn), this is a movie that clearly understands its subtext. Everyone wishes that they could go back in time and revisit high school/college, especially armed with the information and wisdom they hold today. The past and the regrets it contains is a constant in certain story circles, a good way of giving depth to characters whose concerns can seem petty and pouty. But The Lather Effect forgets to balance the backwards glancing with anything remotely current. In the end, these drunken adults don't make peace with who they were so much as realize they can't reconnect with those carefree kids and basically give up.
There are some interesting situations that arise before said surrender, some of them coming from a couple of well-cast '80s icons. Eric Stoltz, who also acted as a producer here, does a devilish turns as a laid-back lifeguard who functions as the group's guide and guru. His dialogue is overloaded with insightful sayings and meaningful maxims, and he has a great time delivering them. Ione Skye is also on hand as the more pragmatic partner of the former high school hunk Jack. She does a wonderful job of living within his limelight, understanding how lucky she is to be part of his then/now paradigm. It pays off in the end when she gives her guy a mandate—figure out what you want, once and for all. As the male yin to her feminine yang, Tate Donavan is stuck playing the party pooper, the voice of reason married to a woman—Valinda—who is desperate to stay stuck in Depeche Mode. Both of these characters are supposed to be our windows into this arrested adolescence existence, a place where trauma surgeons whore themselves to anyone with a sex drive and ex-child stars slink around like the unpopular kids during spin the bottle. They do their job adequately.
Kelly clearly wants to believe that the mistakes and meaning of one's misspent youth tend to trickle over and influence our present being. Duh! And drinking eight glasses of water a day helps to rehydrate you. When dealing with such an obvious narrative facet, the eventual revelations need to be stellar. They need to resonate beyond the mundane and the easily manageable. This, unfortunately, is The Lather Effect's biggest drawback. Over the course of these two days, we learn that two characters still pine away for each other, that one woman is unhappy with her wanton personal life, another feels guilty for cheating on her spouse, and others lament being locked out of the contemporary part of purpose. Again, that's news? The acting is uniformly good, selling these occasionally formulaic moments with style and substance. Equally effective is Kelly and co-writer Tim Talbott's occasionally clichéd script. While the dramatics are definitely drawn from dozens of likeminded motion pictures, there is a wit and a sense of camaraderie here that comes courtesy of the byplay Kelly and company creates. There is nothing wrong with this genial little effort, a film that feels as welcoming as the sensational '80s soundtrack it employs. If you don't go in expecting major interpersonal epiphanies, The Lather Effect will not disappoint.
Anchor Bay, now owned by Starz, delivers this film in a nice little DVD package. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, with clear colors, lots of detail, and a nice balance between day and night sequences. The aural elements are even better, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix offering up such sensational post-punk new wave marvels as Tears for Fears, The English Beat, and Elvis Costello (among many others) in pure sonic bliss. There is a 2.0 Stereo offering as well, but stick with the multichannel choice. Your synth pop proclivities will be glad you did.
As for added content, this digital presentation is nicely accented. There is an in-depth and very funny full-length audio commentary with Kelly, editor Darren Ayres, and producer/star Stoltz. It offers explanations into some of the film's more elusive elements, as well as catty anecdotes about a few of the cast members (right, Tate?). The behind-the-scenes featurette also fills in some blanks, though it's really nothing more than presskit puffery. The 20 minutes of deleted scenes add context, but not much else, and two additional segments—"The Cameron Effect" and "The Importance of Being an Earnest PA"—discuss Kelly's obsession with a certain Say Anything writer/director, as well as the filmmaker's previous gig as a production assistant. All in all, it's not a bad selection of supplemental material.
Certainly, there are some aspects of The Lather Effect that work better than others, and in the end, this is just another example of individuals who should have known better finally learning that lesson. But thanks to the crackerjack cast and the light-fingered filmmaking of Sarah Kelly, this is one get-together you'll be happy to attend—at least, for a little while.
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