Welcome to Dysfunction Junction

death in love2 john cliff Welcome to Dysfunction Junction

Death in Love
Running time 97 minutes
Written and directed by
Boaz Yakin
Starring  Josh Lucas, Jacqueline Bisset, Lukas Haas, Adam Brody

Death in Love is a grim, crestfallen and downright depressing sexual psychodrama about a New York family that is not only dysfunctional but self-destructive beyond hope. The mother is the great, underrated Jacqueline Bisset, who delivers another performance that showcases the dark side of her considerable talents, though it is wasted shamefully. After suffering through so many dumb movies lately about incurable mama’s boys, it’s a tonic to see two sons who hate their mother—especially the beloved Ms. Bisset. But the role is so relentlessly dour and hateful it doesn’t take a shrink to see why.

The emotional and psychotic qualities that turn her grown sons melancholy and futile can be traced back to her early years. A Holocaust survivor who never recovered from her sexual awakening in the bed of a Nazi doctor who performed ghastly medical experiments on the Jews in the camps, she has never been able to distinguish between pleasure and pain. A lifetime of neuroses have cast a long shadow on the sexual and psychological progress of her husband and two sons, all three of whom spend most of their time masturbating. The older brother, played in a raw stretch of emotional fire by Josh Lucas, is a 40-year-old modeling agent—empty, unfulfilled and oversexed without feelings of emotion or joy—whose inability to relate to women except with physical violence has rendered him impotent. The younger son, played by the always too sensitive but weirdly affecting Lukas Haas, is a weak, undernourished, emotionally dependant musician who still lives at home with his miserable, unloved father and angry, domineering mother. Even after he leaves home and moves in with his brother, his fear of daylight and his compulsive eating disorders (his foods are not allowed to touch) are clear danger signals that trouble is on the way. This is one Jewish mother who is no Molly Goldberg. She’s instilled in her family only one philosophy: Never show what you feel because you’ve got nothing to show that everyone doesn’t know already. It’s a talisman to live by that seems to describe the rest of the movie, too.

What makes pretentious, low-budget-indie filmmakers think the world is waiting breathlessly to absorb their personal memoirs like groundbreaking new recipes for meatballs? Death in Love is based on the personal memoirs of writer-director-producer Boaz Yakin, who fared better with A Price Above Rubies, with Renée Zellweger miscast as a rebellious Hasidic Jew. Mr. Yakin’s Orthodox roots have apparently inspired nothing but misery. Fortunately, we get a guided tour of toxic territory by a very good cast. More than just another no-talent Hollywood hunk like Matthew McConaughey (whom he sometimes resembles), Mr. Lucas has range and charisma. He mixes light comedies with dramas of significance, and even tackles challenging assignments on the Broadway stage. Kneeling by his bed naked, sobbing into the sheets and wallowing in self-pity, he exposes emotional layers that go beyond the usual roles he plays, like Sweet Home Alabama with Reese Witherspoon. Mr. Haas has come a long way since he made his debut at 8 in Witness. And Jacqueline Bisset is electrifying. But the structure is a mess and the characters are so remote, from both the script and each other, that you end up caring nothing about them at all.

Like Charlotte Rampling in Liliana Cavani’s equally horrifying but undeniably haunting film The Night Porter, Ms. Bisset finally comes to life when, after many decades, the Nazi torturer who abused her in the camps turns up in Manhattan and invites her to resume their sado-masochistic affair. “This may be purgatory,” Mr. Lucas tells his whacked-out younger brother, “but it’s better than hell.” He never explains why, and there is no evidence to support his assumption. The movie spirals downward to a tragic conclusion that is inevitable. The father jumps off the roof. Mr. Lucas turns to rape and gets stabbed, lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Mr. Haas slams the piano on his knuckles, breaking his fingers. More I cannot tell you, but it doesn’t end there. No wonder Ms. Bisset walks out on her entire family, smiling for the first time, and ends up behind a locked hotel room door, screaming. My guess is that so will you.

rreed@observer.com