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Past Lives


Matt and Mara (2024)

There’s a huge difference in cinema between half-baked and uncooked. A film being largely improvised by its cast is fine, unless the improvisation is not built around a fixed plot. You can have all the talent in the world and the movie still won’t work if it isn’t sure of the story it is telling. “Matt and Mara” could have been delicious. But in this form we are not even being served the cookie dough. All that's here is some raw ingredients with the hope we'll mix them ourselves.

The trouble is with just a little more care this could have been exceptional. Matt (Matt Johnson) and Mara (Deragh Campbell) were inseparable best friends in college whose lives suddenly diverged after graduation. But Matt is suddenly back in Toronto and they are suddenly hanging out again all the time, regardless of Mara's husband, Samir (Mounir Al Shami), and their toddler daughter, neither of whom Matt has ever met. The casual disregard the movie shows Mara's parenting responsibilities, in that she doesn't have any, is a major clue this movie was directed by a man, in this case Kazik Radwanski. He is also credited with the screenplay, such as it is. Mara teaches creative writing full-time and is occasionally asked to speak at various events despite not having published anything recently, while Matt is a successful novelist living the New York dream. But he wants a family and stability like Mara's got; and Mara wants the literary career and adulation Matt's got. Mara starts bringing Matt with her to parties, they are so casual and comfortable together strangers assume they are married; and Samir, who's a musician when not being a full-time dad, doesn't notice anything’s up.

The movie also cheats very badly in that it shows us Matt's work, including him speaking to Mara's students, but despite Mara's speech at a literary event in upstate New York being a major plot point, the movie cuts away before it begins. This rather makes the point that we're not meant to take Mara seriously. But the movie also minimizes the shitfight between Mara and Samir after a party where Mara tells the room that music generally, never mind Samir’s specifically, does nothing for her. The editing by Ajla Odobašić also cuts away from Mara's response to Matt making an unwise declaration, also in a car. On the surface, this is meant to be a movie about a woman suddenly getting an opportunity to revisit her life choices, but it's Mr. Johnson who eats the screen every time he's on it. His character in “BlackBerry” carried a Ninja Turtle wallet; and his character here has the same vibe. Poor Ms. Campbell barely gets a look in.

But it’s that unfinished lack of focus which is the main takeaway from “Matt and Mara.” Well, that and the sense that men really have no idea how much energy small children require, and how most working mothers are so consumed with guilt that they overcompensate, even if they have the world's most supportive and undemanding husband. But it's unusual indeed for a woman to inspire such devotion from two different men that they would lay their lives open for her like thi; and Mr. Radwanski owed it to Ms. Campbell to give her the chance to demonstrate what it is about Mara that has that effect. The movie’s failure belongs to him and no one else.


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