I fear we’re in for a painful plethora of films about the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest to be released to a largely indifferent paying public is The Same Storm, written and directed by Peter Hedges, whose vastly superior Ben is Back starred his talented son Lucas Hedges. Filmed remotely with PCs, cell phones, I-pads and laptops, this one eschews conventional filmmaking techniques with deleterious results to chronicle the lives of 24 people during the hazardous, impactful spring and summer of 2020, in the beginning days of the crisis. Using Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde as a model, the goal is to connect the needs of diverse people to reach out and connect in a time of isolation and despair.
THE SAME STORM ★★ (2/4 stars)
Inspired by a Damian Barr quotation (“We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm”) the film features a large ensemble cast that includes Elaine May, Mary-Louise Parker, Sandra Oh, Alison Pill, Ron Livingston and Judith Light, all making brief contributions to a series of vignettes, each connected in sequence to the next, in a cinematic case of connect the dots—not the best or most emotionally successful way to guarantee a continually fascinating narrative. Some segments work better than others, but there’s no satisfactory connective tissue. With so many characters in so many convoluted plots addressing the viewer via Zoom, the mind quickly wanders. It goes like this: A woman despairs when a hospital nurse named Joey (Raúl Castillo) informs her that her husband is being placed on a generator in preparation for his final exit. Then the nurse, stressed out by constant death, is shown consulting a hooker named Roxy (Mary-Louise Parker) to help him masturbate. Next, Roxy contacts her super-naive, emotionally apathetic mother (the criminally wasted Elaine May, in her first film role in decades) to reassure her she’s OK, but the mother hangs up and calls her ophthalmologist son (Danny Burstein), who happens to be the brother of Roxy. He tries to convince her to go to the hospital and treat her positive Covid diagnosis, but she hangs up on him, too. Trying to analyze the ways love can unite people in dire circumstances, the doctor offers help to an immunocompromised Asian mother (Sandra Oh) whose schizophrenic son overdoses on drugs on camera, sending his Mom, a recovering alcoholic, back into AA.
Extending the idea of panic as a way of life, writer-director Hedges gives the audience a break from the pandemic to include the fear of police brutality expressed by an activist who is, incidentally, the daughter of a New York cop. There’s also a dated debate over 2020 politics and an irrelevant (and overlong) discourse on right-wing polemics involving a noxious family of bigots that includes a fifth-grade teacher (the wonderful Alison Pill), her liberal gay brother (Cory Michael Smith) who has never forgiven her for voting for Donald Trump, and their two other redneck siblings, staging a disastrous final birthday for their terminally ill mother (Judith Light, also wasted).
I won’t even bother to go into the ending, which reverts back to the wife in the opening scene whose husband was on a ventilator. Tonal shifts dominate the narrative in so many disruptive ways that I spent the final half hour looking at my watch. Brief moments of light shine through the darkness, but mostly it’s a disappointing study of the confusing time we live in now. It’s a noble experiment that wears itself out fast, then drags out the running time until the idea of Covid-19 fades in the rearview mirror and we’re left facing even more problems than we started out with. Bring back Singin’ in the Rain.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.