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Creative work is always subject to some limits, but that encapsulation is often a powerful source for the precision of focus. A sonnet, a haiku, a tweet, even a multi-episode fly-on-the-wall documentary—all rely on editing to illuminate a bigger story. The best ones turn limits into foundational assets. A mechanical shark that kept breaking down made “Jaws” much more terrifying because the audience’s imagination was much more vivid than a working practical effect. “The Blair Witch Project” generated an entire genre when the micro-budget inspired the filmmakers to create a whole new genre of “found footage films,” making the film feel more authentic, thanks to a canny choice of storyline and setting.
COVID has inspired filmmakers stuck at home, with traditional projects on hold, to turn the isolation and disruption of the pandemic into movies that work around the requirements of social distancing and document some of the stresses and adjustments we have all experienced. Even with a very strong cast, “Life Upside Down” is a lesser entry in this category due to a weak screenplay from director Cecilia Miniucchi that relies on tepid dialogue and awkward and distracting workarounds. Keeping an alpha predator off-screen intensifies the tension in “Jaws.” But in this film, a character we meet in the first in a pre-pandemic scene is shot only from behind once everyone is stuck at home. Clearly, someone is standing in for the actress to maintain social distance, a clumsy dodge that takes us out of the story.
That character is the patient wife of Jonathan Wigglesworth, an art gallery owner played by Bob Odenkirk, who is cheating on her with a professor named Clarissa Cranes (Radha Mitchell). That first scene, the only one until the very end where we see all the characters together, is an opening at his gallery. Jonathan and Clarissa are so hot for each other that they grab some chocolate-covered strawberries and sneak into his office for an assignation in the middle of the reception.
The pandemic is very inconvenient for people whose entire relationship (as we will see) is primarily stolen minutes together and who really have very little to say to one another beyond telling each other how much they want to be together. It’s also very tough on Jonathan's business. Buying art, like having an affair, relies on in-person contact.
Clarissa’s close friend, also on the faculty, is Paul (Danny Huston), who is married to the much younger Rita (Rosie Fellner). He treats her more like a pet than a partner and barely notices her bristle when he talks down to her because she does not share his intellectual pursuits. Because Huston and Fellner are in a real-life relationship and share a daughter, they are in the same room together in most of their scenes and have a natural connection that makes their moments the film’s most authentic.
It is not just the lockdown that makes the Jonathan/Clarissa scenes sag, but the dullness. Boring characters do not have to be written in a dull way (for a good example, see Billy Bob Thornton in "Intolerable Cruelty"). And yet this film's are, as though the strain of working around the limitations of the shut-down took all of the filmmakers’ attention. And its plot has little energy, relying on sitcom-ish events like a Zoom call mistakenly left on. The characters are shallow and tiresomely needy, not to make any point or learn any lessons just due to a lack of imagination; the film makes the fatal mistake of assuming more interest in their lives from the audience than it earns.
Entries in this genre like “The Same Storm” and “Together” made us care about the characters who were isolated or stuck with each other because of COVID. “Life Upside Down” never does.
Bob Odenkirk as Jonathan Wigglesworth
Radha Mitchell as Clarissa Cranes
Danny Huston as Paul Hasselberg
Rosie Fellner as Rita Hasselberg
Cyrus Palhavi as Darius
Terence Bernie Hines as George
Jeanie Lim as Mrs Wigglesworth
Crispian Belfrage as Tony