Dysfunction Junction: Baldwin, Culkin Boys Make Great Screwed-Up Family

c sarrislymelife Dysfunction Junction: Baldwin, Culkin Boys Make Great Screwed Up FamilyLymelife
Running time 95 minutes
Written by Derick Martini and Steven Martini
Directed by Derick Martini
Starring Alec Baldwin, Kieran Culkin, Jill Hennessy, Rory Culkin

Derick Martini’s Lymelife, from a screenplay by Derick and Steven Martini, was filmed over 22 days on location in New Jersey (standing in for Long Island). The subject is late-’70s suburban sprawl into Long Island out of Queens and the rest of New York City, and how the transition affects two unusually (except in movies) dysfunctional families. Ostensibly the film (and its title) deals also with the spread in this period of Lyme disease with its attendant paranoia in a deer-tick-infested environment. I should know. I was briefly diagnosed with it during a long and mysterious illness that hit me in 1984 after losing a match in a Long Island club’s tennis tournament. That year also marked the early stages of the AIDS epidemic. So my doctors had many false leads before they settled on cytomegalovirus encephalitis, an opportunistic ailment sometimes associated with AIDS.

Alec Baldwin plays Mickey Bartlett, the husband of Jill Hennessy’s Brenda Bartlett, and the father of two sons, 15-year-old Scott (Rory Culkin) and his older brother, Jimmy (Kieran Culkin), who is about to ship out for war. Or so it says in the production notes, though I can’t figure out what war was raging in this particular period.

Mickey, a formidable suburban developer, has been unfaithful to Brenda with his next-door neighbor’s wife and assistant at work, Cynthia Nixon’s Melissa Bragg. Her husband, Timothy Hutton’s Charlie Bragg, seems to be slowly dying from Lyme disease and is fully aware of his wife’s infidelity.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Melissa’s nubile daughter, Adrianna (Emma Roberts), is being feverishly courted by Scott, thought their relationship hits a snag when Adrianna accuses him of having boasted to the other boys that he had “fingered” her, which is the first time I have heard this invasive term used in a movie. Oh, well, live and learn.

The schoolyard bully theme is explored here, as it was in the Swedish vampire movie sleeper Let the Right One In earlier this year, and as it has been in every growing-up movie since at least How Green Was My Valley in 1941.

Despite infuriating Scott with her random flirtations with older boys, Adrianna ends up the virtual aggressor in the consummation of their relationship. Ms. Roberts thereby joins the growing gallery of torrid sexpot teens very recently emboldened by Kristen Stewart in Adventureland.

Even so, there is less emotional distance between the so-called grown-ups and their children in Lymelife as there is in most dysfunctional-family movies. Yet, the satiric objectives of the film as regards the once-upon-a-time urban flight to the deer-tick-saturated foliage of suburbia are undercut for today’s audiences by the current economic malaise afflicting both the cities and the surrounding countryside. Hence, the late ’70s and early ’80s Carter-Reagan American period, a target for several recent Hollywood movies, is now looking more and more like the good old days.

Nonetheless, the sterling ensemble portrayals of Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Hutton and the Culkin brothers on the male side and Ms. Hennessy, Ms. Nixon and Ms. Roberts on the distaff side make Lymelife worth seeing, especially in these dire times.

asarris@observer.com