Certain elements of filmmaking can resemble the exacting nature of chemistry. If done well, these aspects can transform a film into something exceptional. Unfortunately, unlike in chemistry, there aren’t any hard numbers that can direct artists to the correct proportions — three scenes of character development to one action set piece, or something like that. Instead, it becomes a balancing act based on feel and is therefore more susceptible to going awry. Director Matthew Watts’ film Mutual Friends deals in two of these aspects that are difficult to balance for any director: cliché and quirk. In both cases, they are being approached in ways slightly different than most films, but the result is unfortunately the same: they blow up in the filmmakers’ faces and render a possibly interesting film into a tedious and charmless bore.
Liv (Caitlin FitzGerald) is throwing a surprise birthday party for her fiancé, Christoph (Cheyenne Jackson). Meanwhile, Nate (Peter Scanavino), Liv’s old friend who lives a “no strings attached” lifestyle, realizes that he’s in love with Liv. Paul (Michael Stahl-David) tells Nate to embrace his lothario ways, as it beats his boring married life with Beatrice (Christina Cole), who just found out she’s pregnant. Beatrice is hanging out with Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Christoph’s ex and… anyway, you get the point. There are lots of interconnected storylines around different states of relationships that converge and explode to varying degrees at Christoph’s surprise party. What seems intended to be an “honest” portrayal of people in relationships instead comes off like an amalgam of tired sitcom plots with stale romcom observations and no real insight. Imagine a film populated entirely by middle-tier sitcom characters — not the funniest or most interesting, but the ones who occasionally have a good moment before being overshadowed by the rest of the cast.
For every hackneyed comedian bit about how “women be shopping” or “men hate emotion” or whatever, there are a few people in this world who seem to embody those clichés. But just because it’s “real” (or even based on real life) doesn’t mean it’s not also a tired trope that audiences have seen a thousand times. Realism is no defense for boring. The cad who realizes only too late that he has found true love; the dull but stable significant other who is safe, but doesn’t have that certain wackiness like that other guy the female lead has fallen for; the married man who feels fenced in and longs for his single days, only to realize that what he has is pretty good; the off-kilter brother whose hijinks and idiosyncrasies might just pay off in the end: These aren’t characters; they’re sentient programs enacted within the framework of a romantic comedy. Run command prompt: funny, overweight sidekick with a uniquely profound insight into life. What makes this so odd is that each of the storylines following different sets of characters were written by different people, an interesting and novel approach to incorporating differing voices while all dealing with the same situations. Unfortunately, even with this anthology-like aspect, the voices all become the same flat notes we’re accustomed to.
The other combustible element within Mutual Friends is quirk, which is designed to make characters stand out on screen or hilarious because of just how “crazy” they are, itself a cliché endemic to indies and romantic comedies. Sometimes this results in singular, memorable characters; other times, it results in the most obnoxious person in the room, with a series of affectations that people barely tolerate, let alone enjoy. Mutual Friends has lots of quirky moments for its characters — “A dick shaped cake? THAT’s not what I ordered! Oh brother!” — along with characters who are quirky themselves — Liv’s brother is thinking about getting into the field of time travel; there’s an adult character “devoted” to jiu-jitsu like a 9-year-old boy would be. Like the scraps left behind by the kooky neighbor of a middling sitcom, these quirky characters and moments feel tired and forced, another attempt at being novel or different that ultimately underscores the sameness of everything around it.
There are a few upsides to Mutual Friends. The actors do a good job and commit to their parts, even though there’s little for them to do. It’s shot on location in Brooklyn and Manhattan, so there’s lots of solid footage of the city. And there is one storyline that is possibly intriguing involving infidelity, but the majority of it is spent on a wacky investigation that obscures the honest and perceptive elements. Mostly though, the film appears to desperately want to be something true and new, different in its approach but still honest in how it deals with emotions. Unfortunately, any such discerning endeavors are muted by its worn-out platitudes and forced idiosyncrasy, making it a slog to move from one boring trope to the next.