If this is second best, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger would hate to see third best.
Losing sucks, but it doesn't necessarily kill you.
Second Best is the prototypical indie film. It has that vibe of real life spiffed up just a little for the camera. It has a notable supporting actor (in this case, Joe Pantoliano) in the lead doing a character you suspect he really wants to do. Its tone is the antithesis of shiny and happy. As the prototypical indie film, Second Best brings with it equal measures of originality and frustration.
Facts of the Case
Elliot (Joe Pantoliano, Bound) is a former publishing exec who now writes windshield fodder: little diatribes about being a loser, which he pays a kid to distribute around the city. Elliot reads his newest musings to a circle of friends he eats and plays golf with:
• Doc Klingenstein (Bronson Pinchot, Law & Order: Criminal
Intent), an ER doctor who is goofy and quick-witted, with a slightly
Otherwise, Elliot just lazes around and bums money from his son Danny (James Ryan, Law & Order), his mother (Barbara Barrie, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) and his ex-wife (Polly Draper, Law & Order: Criminal Intent). But Elliot's routine is about to change. First, he meets the ghetto-fabulous crossing guard, Carole (Jennifer Tilly, Bound), who seems to like him. Second, his longtime friend and successful Hollywood producer, Richard (Boyd Gaines, I'm Not Rappaport, Law & Order), is about to come by for a visit. Will this be Elliot's big break—or will it break him?
When you break out of the conventions and comfortable storytelling algorithms that Hollywood has perfected, you must fill the vacuum with something else. Independent film is all about bucking conventions in favor of reality. Of course, the independent movie is a fabrication too. Some indie filmmakers are under the impression that filling the void with verisimilitude will be inherently attractive to the indie moviegoer—but it usually isn't.
Second Best suffers from that trap, but to its credit mostly avoids obvious pitfalls. For example, Elliot's relationship with Carole the crossing guard doesn't follow any of the standard romantic comedy arcs. Their relationship is ill-defined throughout, unglamorized; it is realistically ambivalent instead of being a sound bite of sentiment. Indeed, all of Elliot's relationships are this way.
That is the boon and the bane of Second Best. The film is entirely dependent on relationships and subtext. Some of the relationships are interesting. Some of them are not.
The central dynamic is fortunately the most interesting. Elliot is gifted but unsuccessful. His lifelong friend Richard substitutes attitude for talent, and has become much more successful. Their contrast provides the backbone of Second Best's major themes. Joe Pantoliano organically fuses with Elliot to portray a jealous, fearful, yet talented and loving man. Boyd Gaines gives Richard a barely perceptible malaise, a man who almost ghostwalks through his fame and fortune. The two actors make real sparks fly.
You'll be spending a lot of time with Elliot's posse of middle-aged loser friends. Collectively, this group presents a complex aura of bittersweet resignation. They've aged and seen some of their dreams evaporate. Yet they get out to the golf course and to the bars, have fun together in spite of any curveballs life has thrown their way. As a group, their dynamic works. The actors, particularly Peter Gerety and Matthew Arkin, exude charisma and polish. But the individual characters are not memorable or likeable. Gerald seems to be there just so Elliot has someone to tear into. Aside from a surprisingly muted response to Elliot's mean-spirited jibes, Gerald doesn't leave much of an impact. Doc Klingenstein fares worse. He is high profile, constantly being brought to our attention. He gives the group a touch of glamour because he's a doctor, he acts up on the golf course, and there's even an obvious, but unexplained, bone of contention between him and Richard. But by the end of the film, I had no idea why he warranted such focus. His character isn't given any specific purpose or resolution. The men come off as placeholders for Every Man instead of realized, memorable characters.
Thank heavens for Barbara Barrie (Elliot's mom) or else the women in Second Best would fare even worse. Second Best isn't misogynistic so much as misanthropic, but the women still get the shaft. Jennifer Tilly's Carole is the most prominent example; Jennifer imbues her scenes with spark, but the character is just a placeholder so that Richard will have someone to take from Elliot later. Polly Draper has a passing, but effective, turn as Elliot's ex. Otherwise the women are seen but not heard.
When you get past the formlessness of the people, you're left with a lot of navel-gazing dialogue. Fortunately, the navel-gazing is interesting in this case, because it wants to be your navel we're all gazing at.
Yes, dialogue is the true star of Second Best. Joe Pantoliano seamlessly spews Eric Weber's acerbic, pointed words. Through Weber's script and Pantoliano's portrayal, Elliot makes misogyny, homophobia, bitterness, self-loathing, and cowardice not only tolerable, but somehow redeeming. Second Best pulls off a hell of a trick: it paints Elliot as a miserable, deplorable wretch, then twists that perspective into heroism without feeling contrived.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't comment on Second Best's aggressive sense of humor. From penis jokes to slapstick, Second Best never eases its assault of wry, perceptive comedy. Given the Every Man appeal that Second Best strives for, you can read this as black comedy because it is making fun of you and your failed dreams.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I said before that when you buck standard Hollywood storytelling conventions, you must fill the void with something else. In many cases, Second Best's void filling seems like filler. From extended golfing scenes (including an inexplicable showdown between Elliot and a park attendant that fails to make a clear point) to dull scenes of quiet despair, Second Best acts like a film that knows it has you hooked. It might work that way for some people, but it didn't for me. I had no clear idea where the movie was trying to take me, what these "small" scenes were trying to depict. As a result, it felt like a handful of poignant quips buried among a drawn-out marathon of drudgery. Subtlety is good when your underlying theme is discernable, but only then.
Second Best was shot digitally and relatively cheaply. Though young, it shows its age. The "transfer," which is actually digital to digital, is nonetheless blurry and oddly focused. Some of the shot compositions are disconcerting. The cinematography pulled me out of the story on a regular basis.
The commentary track is lively, though fraught with the same bravado, self-importance, and trivial focus that characterize the movie. Joe Pantoliano heads off some painful lines of discussion, but cannot fully save Eric Weber from a string of faux pas. I wasn't personally interested in whether Weber prefers pastrami or turkey, and I certainly didn't care which specific cafe he and Joe met in to discuss the picture. Weber shows not the least hint of humility, and I felt he had some explaining to do that I didn't hear.
At least you can hear the commentators. Often, dialogue is nearly inaudible in the feature itself. Maybe they were simply using the mic on the camera to pick up the dialogue, who knows, but many conversations trickle out of the back corner of the speakers.
Second Best has some really funny scenes and good performances. It successfully carries a unique social theme of dealing with your failed aspirations. I wanted to like it much more than I actually liked it—its formlessness just didn't quite connect for me. It is nonetheless a decent example of what can be accomplished with an indie budget and a script that breaks out of the norm.
The actors are released on their own recognizance. Weber will be detained until he provides a complete statement.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by director Eric Weber and actor/producer Joe Pantoliano
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