The Intervention (2016)

Directed by Clea DuVall


The Intervention is an actor’s movie because it takes place in a small location and depends entirely on the performances.  Every character is allowed to play a range of emotions, from slapstick comedy to absolute despair.  It was also directed by Clea DuVall, a veteran actor you might recognize from projects such as Girl, Interrupted or recent episodes of Veep.  I think movies directed by actors often suffer the same problems.  They are composed of strong scenes and moments in between characters that let the actors have some fun, but the transition from scene to scene is often choppy, and the whole never feels properly assembled by the individual parts.  It would be like constructed an IKEA desk with beautiful components, but then you realize you’re assembling a desk from three different types of desks and armoires.  If you look closely at each aspect of the piece, you might think you’re onto something, but when you take a step back you’re left feeling a little confused and underwhelmed.

This movie is ostensibly a comedy.  It’s title makes me think of The Interview (Seth Rogen, James Franco) or The Intern (also not quite a comedy but not meant to be taken seriously) or The Internship (Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson).  These are playful movies that are hardly meant to be taken seriously.  We laugh at the hijinks of Rogen and Franco’s not so intelligent characters in The Interview, and I imagine we’re supposed to root for Vaughn and Wilson as they navigate a world of cooky characters in Silicon Valley (I’ve never seen this movie).  And in The Intern, every motion is microwaved, not oven-roasted, but that’s okay because it’s ultimately a very sweet, innocent movie where we know everything will work out.

The Intervention takes a premise ripe for comedy (Ben Schwartz, Cobie Smulders, Melanie Lynskey and other familiar comedic actors), but then weighs itself down with self-indulgence and characters for whom happiness is treated as a chore.  It’s ultimately not that fun to hang out with these characters for a weekend, and it feels like the script has deceived you.

We’re not here to watch four couples re-evaluate their relationships because we don’t care about them.  At least, I didn’t care about them.  We meet each couple in a state of quiet turmoil, and it’s very apparent that they will all consider how they’ve gone wrong before considering how it can still go well.  The best moment in the film, for me, was a montage of all the characters having fun, playing games and drinking after the plot was over and they had decided they can all relax.  When we finally saw these engaging actors having some fun, I was ready to stick with them, but instead we’re forced to sit through their mock therapy sessions for an hour while we wait for them to have some kind of breakthrough.

The film opens with three couples, and I’ve already forgotten how they all know each other.  They await the arrival of a fourth couple, Ruby and Peter (Cobie Smulders, Vincent Piazza), whom they have decided must get a divorce.  Their plan seems a little ill-conceived, but this is addressed very early on with some cinematic lamp shading as Ben Schwartz’s character, Jack, says this is a bad plan that sounds worse when you say it out loud.  I laughed at this moment because this does seem to be a very bad plan.  But it could work, premise-wise!  We’ve established that Annie (Melanie Lynskey), the ring leader of the group, desperately wants Peter and Ruby to get divorced.  She wants this so badly that it’s clear she is compensating for problems in her own relationship with her nice-guy soon-to-be husband, Matt (Jason Ritter).  But her eagerness to get this plan underway is amusing.  Later, her desperation will be explained not by a character trait but by her alcoholism and inability to love her future husband the way he wants to be loved.  This eventual break up is never explained properly.  She merely tells Matt that she doesn’t want to be anyone’s wife or anyone’s mother.  I understand she’s having some sort of identity crisis, but the story never explores this, instead it just tells us ‘this is what she’s going through.’

Part of the problem is that we never meet Annie or Jack or Matt or the other characters before this weekend, and we’re not properly introduced to what’s going on in their lives. Annie’s an alcoholic, okay, but that seems like a simplification, a movie trope to show her sadness.  I want to know where her sadness comes from, but it doesn’t matter and is never given time.

That’s the problem with a lot of characters.  Jack, for example, brings with him a 22 year year old girl, Lola (Alia Shawkat), and everyone whispers about how young she is and how typical it is of Jack to bring a girl like her with him.  In an early conversation, Matt and Jessie (Clea DuVall), make a $50 bet on whether Jack brings Lola with him.  They roll their eyes at his behavior, and we’re led to believe that he’s a serial bachelor, bouncing from girl to girl and traveling the road.  He never settles in one place and is putting this off, so we’re told that this is a character who won’t grow up.  But you know what?  Almost out of the blue we’re told that Jack was once married, and his wife died a year and a half ago.  This explains nothing about him.  It’s a device, and it’s meant to explain something about him, but it just makes me more irritated with the people around him.  Jack makes it clear to Lola that he likes her and wants to take this seriously (while her justification for keeping things casual is “I’m 22.”)  So Jack really likes her, and it’s sweet, but it makes me think none of the other characters know him at all.  He was married, and now he finds a new girl whom he wants to take seriously.  What’s wrong with that?  This simply felt like DuVall decided late in the writing process to add ‘Jack’s ex-wife died’ into the script.  It’s never mentioned until Lola brings it up late in act 2, and then in the very next scene Jack brings it up as he talks to Peter.  It just felt forced and unnecessary.

The movie did this a lot, taking characters who were in some kind of trouble in their relationship, and shoving shit onto their shoulders to explain something about them.  These ‘explanations’ often made the characters more confusing and less unique.  They began to feel like mannequins that had only recently learned how to have feelings, but they were only taught misery.

Clea DuVall’s character Jessie is in a relationship with Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), and she has trouble committing to her.  They get into a huge fight when Lola kisses Jessie, and the fight is all about whether Jessie ‘kissed back.’  These feel like middle school fights, and it’s hard to take them seriously.  Giving the film a little credit, though, Annie later gets mad at them, pointing out how ridiculous their fight is (after it escalates to pushing, chasing, etc.) but Annie is hardly the person to give out sage advice.  It doesn’t add up with her character.  She’s right, but she’s wrong in so many other ways, about Peter and Ruby, about Jack and Lola, and about herself.

So yeah, the alcoholism, the kiss, the dead wife, it all feels too heavy-handed.  I think the movie would be a lot more engaging if either A) they didn’t all wonder whether they should break up or B) they were all prepared to break up.

Before we meet Peter and Ruby, we’re given ample opportunity to see how these other three couples might begin to splinter apart.  These are all movie reasons to break up, not real life reasons to break up, but we’re trained, as movie audiences, to expect them to fight at some point anyways.  When we meet Peter and Ruby, I was almost expecting them to be a nearly perfect couple, pointing out how wrong Annie is.  Instead, they fight like animals, and we’re led to believe that Annie is right.

But at least Peter and Ruby’s fighting is above ground.  They know they’re fighting with each other whereas the other couples are much more passive aggressive.

So the story is, at the start, very clearly about the three other couples more than the one on the receiving end of the intervention.  It’s about the people who would be willing to stage an intervention (rather than talking to the couple one on one), than the people who are told they need to break up.  The film, though takes a lot of time to focus on how Peter and Ruby decide to work it out.  Peter sits on a bench, and Ruby gives him a teary-eyed speech about how he proposed to her, and gosh it’s a little boring because we have no reason to give a shit about this couple.  All we’ve seen is them fighting, so why is their make up moment given so much time?

The other climax of the film is when Annie, following the news that Peter and Ruby are getting together, tells Matt that she doesn’t want to marry him.  I will repeat, why do we care?  We’ve never seen them happy, so it doesn’t matter to us.  Then they return to the house, and the rest of the group stages an intervention, telling Annie she’s an alcoholic, and she takes it way too well.

This is a movie with a lot of talent, and it could never tell if it wanted to be a comedy or a drama.  There is something oddly fascinating about watching terrible couples be terrible together.  Most people know a couple like that, whether personally or hell maybe on tv.  It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is ALL about terrible people, and it’s a great show.  So I think this movie should have leaned all in on the fact that these are terrible couples with a terrible plan to break up another terrible couple.  I could picture this premise as an episode of It’s Always Sunny.  It might be that the gang tells Frank he’s an alcoholic, and at the same time they’re all currently high or drunk on something.  They’re complete ignorance of their own problems is funny, but here it’s made way too serious.

As the story unfolded, and characters began to stop being funny and start acting way too seriously, like any of this mattered, this is what I was thinking:

It seems to me like this type of movie, about a comedic premise with comedic characters that turns deadly serious and painfully, manipulatively emotional, is a generational type of film.  It’s the millennial generation.  We’re a group of people who like to laugh at things, mock things and sarcastically say how great something is.  We like to undercut things that have been built before us, and this mockery isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s good to question what’s around you and satirize or parody it, but then sometimes we turn on a dime and decide that what we’ve got going on with ourselves is supremely important, and it’s no longer funny.

The reason, I suppose, that I don’t feel satisfied with the culmination of this story is because I never felt what was at stake.  Because we don’t see the couples with any sort of happiness, it feels someone is telling you a story about why things end before suddenly saying “actually they don’t have to end!”  It’s like someone is reading a child Everybody Poops but then the last line of the book is “…but not everyone has to poop.”


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