A Writer In Retreat, And An Unlikely 'Collaborator'

Jul 5, 2012

Robert Longfellow, the auspiciously named playwright at the center of Collaborator, was at one point good enough to be sincerely called "the voice of his generation." What a convenient shortcut for a film about a writer! The moniker says everything — he's basically Arthur Miller, see? — without his needing to say anything. It doesn't matter what the man wrote, only that people thought it was grand.

Collaborator wants to be grand, too. It's about a grand writer; it floats grand themes; ergo it must also be grand. But writer-director-star Martin Donovan can't connect the dots; the film is a ponderous bore.

Robert (Donovan) is foundering at the film's outset, beset by lousy reviews, So he retreats from the cold glare of the New York spotlight to his mother's home in Los Angeles, reconnecting with the former lover (Olivia Williams) he abandoned eight years ago.

Then in another form of reconnection, Robert's foul-mouthed neighbor and former childhood pal Gus (David Morse) — who's had a few screws loosened over the decades — bursts into the house and takes him hostage, for no real reason.

The bulk of the film finds Gus and Robert shooting the breeze in his house, playing theater games at gunpoint while the outside world becomes entranced by the predicament of the captive mind: "Playwright taken hostage!" the news breathlessly reports. It's an opposites-thrust-together gambit of the most pedestrian variety: the haughty intellectual who seeks to capture the American spirit and the cocaine-snorting ignoramus who can't recognize a statue of the Virgin Mary, secluded together artificially so as to debate the film's theme.

Donovan is aiming for big ideas: the mindset of modern American creatives, the divergent paths lives can take, art's effectiveness (or lack thereof) when it comes to healing the world. But he's more interested in the ideas themselves than in the characters taxed with delivering them, which is always problematic, but which might be forgivable if he demonstrated some semblance of commitment to story and urgency.

There's more than a little echo of the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink in Donovan's tale of the struggling writer who can't fathom how to best connect with the common man, even when there's one brandishing a weapon in his face. But unlike Collaborator, that film had a self-deprecating spirit; it posited that writers may not be the most important people in the world. Without that slyness, what's left here (sleepy staging, bored-looking performances) seems too muddy to be taken seriously; it's as thin as the improv exercises the two men play to pass the time.

Gus is a raging loon without a clear motive who serves only to show Robert the error of his ways — a Manic Pixie Dream Psychopath, if you will. What's the meaning of a goofy segment where he giddily chats with his favorite actress over the phone? That even homicidal maniacs can be starstruck? That celebrities must suffer for their art by occasionally enduring interactions with crazy people? There's an underlying narcissism that's lemon-sour.

What the film does reveal in its closing minutes is intriguing: a look at how one event can completely alter the trajectory of a life. But there's still some essential connective tissue missing, and even after Robert comes to "understand" Gus as well as he can hope to, the film's default emotion remains pity, not empathy.

"I'm sick of all the movies nowadays. There's no real people in them," Gus proclaims. Collaborator could've used some help being real itself.

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