Tuesday, May 18, 2021

I Play With the Phrase Each Other (2014)

Director: Jay Alvarez                                        Writer: Jay Alvarez
Film Score: Evyn Oliver                                   Cinematography: Ray Buckley
Starring: Jay Alvarez, Will Hand, Megan Kopp and Alexander Fraser

I Play With the Phrase Each Other is an independent film by Portland actor-director Jay Alvarez that is comprised almost entirely of cellphone calls. It’s an interesting idea that’s not nearly as tedious as it might seem at first, especially in the hands of Alvarez, who wrote the screenplay as well. The screenplay is actually very literate, perhaps more literate than it should be, but then that’s part of its charm. There’s something playful about the film that juxtaposes carefully wrought dialogue--almost painfully so--with subject matter that ranges widely from sex to electrical pollution to retail sales and at times borders on camp. Alvarez wisely chose to film in black and white, which diminishes the emphasis on the sets themselves and focuses the audience on the dialogue and the characters. The cinematographer on the project is Ray Buckley, who worked very effectively with Geoff Stewart on his film Reverie. The hand held work isn’t distracting, and at times it’s barely noticeable. Buckley also does some nice work with lighting in the interiors, specifically the nighttime shots that are almost reminiscent of film noir of the forties. The use of music is minimal, as it only appears three times, again, as if to avoid competing with the dialogue. The first is on the opening titles of the film, and while there is none during the phone conversations that take place in present time, Evyn Oliver’s guitar work can be heard during the flashback that Hand narrates to Fraser, and then again on the closing credits.

The film opens with Jay Alvarez in his apartment at night, surrounded by the novels of Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs, telling his friend Will Hand in that same kind of language that he needs to get out of his hometown and come to the city. There’s definitely a sense of humor to the film as Alvarez finishes his adjective-drenched description of Portland and then pauses to take a sip of coffee. The next conversation is Hand’s friend Alexander Fraser confessing skepticism about him moving in with Alvarez, and the fact that Hand hasn’t told his ex-girlfriend, Megan Kopp, that he’s leaving. Hand’s dialogue, though not quite as arty as Alvarez’s, is peppered with the same kind of pretentious descriptions. More humor comes when the scene switches to Kopp at work at a book store when a customer tells her she’s not going to enjoy his phone call, then later describing to a man she’s beginning to date how much she wants to strangle the customers. Alvarez tells Hand he doesn’t need money or a job, and that he can assist him with his “sales,” a nebulous phrase that concerns Fraser. Later the audience learns that Alvarez’s sales involve musical instruments and the actor Big Dogg, a ghetto, black man who assists him by meeting his customers on the street and browbeating them into buying. Homeless man David Hudnall also assists by being on the phone with Alvarez during the sale while Alvarez watches them out of his window.

At this point the phone calls begin moving outward from the core group like concentric circles, to include a girl that Fraser knows who moved to the city, Kopp and her girlfriend Dana Dae, who thinks brains in men are overrated, and an extended flashback to Alvarez and his girlfriend Bonnie Auguston, as well as his meeting Todd Robinson who had just abandoned his wife that morning and moved in with Alvarez. The second half of the film primarily concerns Hand’s misadventures in the city, including his attempts to get a job at a chain restaurant--where one of the servers is Quinn Allan, a well-known face in Portland films. Alvarez is very good onscreen but seems to be enjoying himself a bit too much, as if he’s secretly delighted with the way that the movie is coming together and it’s distracting him from his own character development. Megan Kopp’s performance also suffers, delivering her lines in the way that beginning actresses often do by being too self-conscious of their own performance. Will Hand’s character is the most subdued, and this helps him to keep centered, but by far the best actor in the film is Alexander Fraser who has an easy and natural way about him that makes him the most believable of the bunch.

Alvarez has written a conversational film that demonstrates an ingenious construction at times, but sort of loses its way at the end. Actor Will Hand is the central character in the drama, complete with his obsessive-compulsive tick of keeping his phone away from his face and being afraid of electrical pollution. But the reality of the film is that it’s Alvarez who is actually at the emotional center, and I’m not sure he even realized it. The last twenty minutes is a conversation between Hand and Fraser about sex that is intercut with dialogue between Kopp and Dae in which both Kopp and Hand are telling the same story--something Alvarez also does at other points in the film. But it’s an unsatisfying way to end the movie, as the intrigue that Alvarez’s character has brought to the entire film is suddenly absent, and without it the dialogue sounds pedestrian. One of the knocks against the film is that people don’t talk on cell phones anymore, they text. But the black-and-white photography combined with touches in the set design like cassette players and flip phones gives it a feeling of being set in the recent past, when the primary function of cell phones was talking. While I Play With the Phrase Each Other isn’t for everyone, it can certainly be rewarding if the viewer allows the humorous aspect to dominate and it doesn’t become an overly serious My Dinner with Andre of the new millennium.

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