Selfish Improvement – Only star power saves ‘Multiple Sarcasms’ from dullsville

 Timothy Hutton, left, and Laila Robins share a scene in the mid-life-self-discovery-themed rom-com "Multiple Sarcasms." Jessica Miglio photo

Timothy Hutton, left, and Laila Robins share a scene in the mid-life-self-discovery-themed rom-com “Multiple Sarcasms.”
Jessica Miglio photo

“Multiple Sarcasms” tips its hat early to the kind of film it wants to be when it reveals its protagonist, a depressed architect played by Timothy Hutton, has been going to see the film “Starting Over” several times. That 1979 Burt Reynolds-Jill Clayburgh-Candice Bergen romantic comedy was the kind of mainstream film that, by no means a classic, looks like Ingmar Bergman compared to the rom-coms that Hollywood now squeezes out.

A first feature written and directed by industry veteran Brooks Branch, “Multiple Sarcasms” sounds like a comedy from the title but is a drama interlaced with just enough comic moments to keep it interesting. For a bit.

Gabriel (Hutton, wearing a five o’clock shadow and a leather jacket) believes he’s going through his midlife crisis. He has a beautiful wife (Dana Delaney), a darling 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth (India Ennega), a large apartment in Manhattan and a good job. So of course he’s not happy. He also has a best friend, Cari (played by Mira Sorvino), an agent, played with the usual brusque economy and humor of Stockard Channing, and a gay co-worker, played by Mario Van Peebles in amazing ‘fro and handlebar moustache.

The cast here is so good that it takes a little while to realize the story is not up to par. Gabriel believes he has to write the Great American Play, and his agent — although he’s never written anything — urges him to write but to not bother her until it’s done. As he delves into himself to get to some brutal, honest truth, Gabriel becomes distant from his wife; come the mid-point of the film, the two separate. All is good fodder for the Great American Play that we assume he can actually write.

That everything works out for Gabriel hints that Brooks Branch is writing some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy for himself, this being his first screenplay. (No idea if he lost a wife in the process, and it shouldn’t matter.) In this voyage of self-discovery, everyone’s a winner in the end. If Branch had shown a little more nerve to twist these characters in a more satirical direction, the movie would have been more than just watching great actors do a great job with bland material.

As it is, Hutton brings more likability than should really be in such a self-absorbed man. As Channing’s agent says to him, “I love you, I really do, but this (freaking) whiny, white-guy (stuff) has got to stop.” Agreed.

And one more question: Why the late ’70s setting? Apart from a go-nowhere jab at new age medicine and the romanticism of pre-computer-age typewriters going clackety-clack, there’s no reason for the story to be in this period, unlike Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm,” for example. Maybe the only good reason is that it might explain how an unemployed man could stay in a spacious brownstone for more than one week on the island.

Starring: Timothy Hutton, Dana Delaney, Mira Sorvino, and Stockard Channing
Rating: R for sexual references and language
Length: 97 minutes
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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