Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Truth About Emanuel

The gentleman at the end of our row laughed so hard during Francesca Gregorini’s “The Truth About Emanuel” that I feared he might choke on his popcorn. Unfortunately, the film is not a comedy. 

There will be worse movies in 2014, but none with a more ludicrous basic plot. Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) – no “le” because her parents thought she was going to be a boy – is about to turn eighteen, but still hasn’t come to terms with her mother’s dying while giving birth to her. She lives with her kind and forgiving father Dennis (Alfred Molina) and mousy, well-meaning stepmother Janice (Frances O’Connor), both of whom she treats with contempt. They occupy a dimly-lit two-story house and exchange dialogue so stilted you wonder how anyone kept a straight face.

Emanuel is fascinated by the arrival of a pretty new neighbor named Linda (Jessica Biel), who reminds her of the photographs she’s seen of her mother. Linda is a single mom, and Emanuel quickly volunteers to babysit her infant daughter, Chloe. Bizarrely, it is not until the third such engagement that Linda allows Emanuel to view baby Chloe, who is in fact – a doll! This makes Linda completely scooters, and Emanuel – who goes along with the charade, bathing and swaddling little “Chloe” – ain’t far behind. I fear Biel hoped this film would enhance her credibility as a serious actress. Unfortunately, she’s been hung out to dry, with lines about having to lose those pesky last five pounds and being too old to wear a certain dress that Mrs. Justin Timberlake cannot pull off. The hint of a sexual attraction between Linda and Emanuel is so laughable, even Gregorini knew enough to abandon it posthaste.

The unintentional hilarity begins in the opening sequence, with a deeply solemn voice-over in which Emanuel says her mother’s death “is on my tab. I’m like a prisoner, waiting for my sentence to be up.” Yup, that’s pretty much what prisoners do! It builds with the lengths Emanuel goes to to keep her family and her new boyfriend Claude (cute Aneurin Barnard) from discovering the truth about Chloe. (Barnard’s 26, so there’s another chuckle when he suggests they may be cited for “underage drinking.”) It gains momentum when Linda agrees to a date with Arthur (Jimmi Simpson), the dweeby, pimply-faced pharmacy stock boy who works with Emanuel, and who finally calls Linda out on her craziness. And it climaxes with Emanuel sneaking into the psych ward (randomly open side door), abducting Linda (narrowly escaping a nurse who just happens to be doing bed checks at four in the morning), and walking her what looks like fifty feet to the town graveyard, where they proceed to bury baby Chloe beside Emanuel’s mother.

Gregorini would have been better served to play this material as black comedy. (If it were an SNL sketch, the writers wouldn’t change a thing.) She went for a mother-daughter anthropomorphic vibe – “Stoker” meets “Lars and the Real Girl” – and ended up with a picture that plays like a big put-on. First you look to the faces of the people around you. Then you start looking for Allen Funt.

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