Film review: Nancy Savoca returns to form with 'Union Square'
Tammy Blanchard and Mira Sorvino in "Union Square." (Photo by Gerardo Somoza)
The film opens with Lucy (Mira Sorvino, by far the best known of the movie's stars), wandering around, shopping and desperately trying to reach Jay, a presumed boyfriend, by phone and text. Having traveled to Manhattan hoping to surprise him, she has a full-on, screaming tantrum in public when he blows her off.
Looking for a friendly ear and a place to crash, she pushes her way into the apartment of Jenny (Tammy Blanchard), who is clearly not happy to see her. At first, Jenny — tensed up like the proverbial headlit deer — simply doesn't answer the door, pretending she's not at home. It is briefly a mystery as to why she finally relents, given her dread of interacting with this intrusive, emotionally crumbling friend from the past.
Within a few minutes of increasingly strained conversation — the loud, effervescent Lucy practically bouncing off the walls, horrifying the quiet, low-key Jenny — the reason becomes clear: Lucy isn't merely an old friend; she's Jenny's sister. Even though they've been estranged for years, Jenny can't completely ignore her, but hopes she'll be gone before fiance Bill (Mike Doyle) gets home.
As if. Lucy immediately threatens every aspect of Jenny's rigid, neat-freak world. We also nonchalantly learn that she's come all the way, not from New England or even upstate, but from the Bronx. That might not be very far geographically, but the film's conflicts stem from how great the distance is (or maybe isn't) culturally.
For the film's first few minutes, Lucy appears to be the protagonist, but the focus quickly shifts to Jenny, whose entire adult life has been a flight from her upbringing. The sisters are exact opposites: Lucy is all id, impulsive and almost innocently presumptuous; Jenny is all superego, regimented and orderly. Combine them, and the result might be one healthy personality.
The conflict is reminiscent of Jane Campion's great debut feature, “Sweetie,” which also pitted a “straight” sister versus a crazy one. But Savoca takes a less extreme approach: a series of cautiously revealed surprises repeatedly forces us to reevaluate our sympathies, without ever violating the realism of the characterizations.
The situation sounds like a Francis Veber farce, á là “Dinner for Schmucks”; indeed, it could be rejiggered into a comedy, and at first it feels a little like one. But the humor is a short-lived false front. Savoca has bigger fish to deep-fry.
The performers are all excellent. Sorvino has the “fun” role, but Blanchard has the tougher job — most of Jenny's emotions have to struggle against her controlled manner in order to make it as far as her face.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).