You could call Bart Freundlich’s Manhattan romp about couples and relationships Men Behaving Badly 101. The mild madness whirls about Tom (David Duchovny), a stay-at-home dad who’s not getting enough action from his wife so he begins to surf porn sites, and worse. His brother-in-law and daytime running mate, Toby (Billy Crudup), is a sportswriter (tackling such grand topics as carpal-tunnel syndrome in baseball players) and a commitment-phobe willing to let the clock run out on his seven-year relationship.
BANAL MATERIAL: but Freundlich handles it with acerbic wit.
The two have a lot to learn, and the women in question are no patsies. Tom’s semi-famous actress wife, Rebecca (Julianne Moore, Freundlich’s real-life wife), has had enough of show-biz glamor, the low-carb diet she’s on for her latest role, and the malaise at home. Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring kiddie-lit writer, wants Toby to stop slacking around and grow up and pop the question so she can start popping out babies. Her soliloquy about waking up one morning and realizing her need for children is Gyllenhaal’s Oscar highlight moment.
Freundlich, who’s known for arty efforts like The Myth of Fingerprints but also for hackwork like Catch That Kid, orchestrates this quartet into philosophical riffs on fucking, farting, stale relationships, fidelity, and fulfillment. Fairly banal stuff, yet he probes the darkness with an acerbic wit, rendering some genuinely awkward moments — Tom and Rebecca’s annual visit to a shrink for a relationship check-up; Tom buying porn with kids in tow — with the mastery of vintage Woody Allen.
Some of the shtick falls flat, like Toby’s tacked-on obsessive stalking of his shrink (the always splendid Bob Balaban), and much like a relationship unaware that it’s in trouble, the film rambles along without much point. That is, until Tom embarks on an affair with Pamela (Dagmara Dominczyk). Her husband just up and left one day, and she celebrates the date each year by taking her children to a Chuck E. Cheese, so she might be a Fatal Attraction waiting to happen. Rebecca, Toby, and Elaine have their own potential affairs, and as the couples grow apart, the women grapple with their dissatisfaction while the men revel in the testosterone triumph of the fleeting cheap thrill.
The cliché’d climax is funnier and more engaging than it has any right to be. By that juncture, Freundlich has run out of cards, and it’s all up to his leads. Gyllenhaal and Crudup have been working largely as props to Moore and Duchovny, but in the end they make Elaine and Toby their own. Duchovny shows that he’s more than Agent Mulder and, like Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale, might have a promising second career in indie film. And though the drama centers on Tom, the film belongs to Moore. Her tender emoting while trying to keep a stiff upper lip, either while at work on stage or on the brink of a breakdown in a restaurant, keeps her husband’s ship afloat in rough water.