Daytrippers, The (1996): Greg Mottola’s Directing Debut, Ensemble Comedy, with Parker Posey, Stanley Tucci

South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Fest, Austin 1996The Daytrippers, Greg Mottola’s feature directorial debut, is an amusing farce about the delicate intricacies and imbalances of a modern marriage.

A spirited cast, including old pros like Anna Meara and younger talent like Parker Posey and Stanley Tucci, elevates the basically sitcom material into something fluffier and funnier than it actually is. Soderbergh’s producing credit should facilitate theatrical distribution for a picture that is marred by uninventive direction, but holds commercial appeal with the twentysomething and thirtysomething crowds.

Eliza (Hope Davis) and Louis (Stanley Tucci) seem to enjoy a blissful marital life in their suburban home, until one day Eliza finds a poetic love letter addressed to her hubby. Shocked and distraught, she rushes to her parents’ house for a piece of advice. Eliza’s dad (Pat McNamara) just listens quietly, but her terribly upset mom (Meara) is determined to take action, urging Eliza to confront Louis directly, at his Manhattan’s publishing office.

Eliza, her old folks, younger sister Jo (Parker Posey) and the latter’s b.f. Carl (Liev Schreiber) hit the road in search of the presumably erring husband. Of course, when they reach Louis’ elegant office, he’s nowhere to be found, though his suave boss Eddie (Campbell Scott) tips them about a book party that Louis is supposed to attend that night.

Mottola structures his tale as a road comedy, with the quintet encountering numerous obstacles in their odyssey. Along the way, they invade into the apartment of Ronnie (Andy Brown), a Columbia business student, whose irresponsible father takes refuge in his place. Problem is that a good deal of the comic yarn is set within the confined space of a car, where the characters–and the audience–are stuck for too long without much fresh air to breath. Viewers are subjected to too many marital squabbles between mom and dad, nasty intergenerational exchanges between mom and rebellious daughter Jo, tension between Jo and snobbish Carl, and so on.

The “asides” provide a welcome respite from the car, though not all of them are sufficiently funny–or entertaining. When an old lady asks for help to move around a heavy TV set, a whole scene is devoted to her arguments with her sibling over the inheritance of their deceased mom. Mottola’s writing is decidedly uneven and his movie gets progressively tedious. And while he offers a nice twist about the mysterious identity of Louis’ affair, ending is too abrupt and emotionally unsatisfying.

The juicy ensemble rescues the film whenever it faces the danger of falling apart. As a domineering yanta, Meara plays a well-crafted part she could have done in her sleep. Endowed with a strong charming presence, Posey shows again that she’s ready for the big-time. As the straight lady, Davis has a thankless part that she nonetheless performs quite adequately.

The rest of the cast, particularly McNamara as the cool dad, Scott as the flirtatious publisher, Tucci as the confused hubby, Schreiber as the pretentious novelist, and Harden as an insecure woman, all hit their marks.

A graduate of Columbia, Mottola acquits himself better as a scripter than helmer, showing a sensitive ear to the multi-nuanced dialogue used by vulnerable people in love. However, his direction is unmodulated and he tends to keep the camera too close to his characters to the point where it’s impossible to see the reaction of others to what’s being said. Tech credits are no more than O.K., which might be a reflection of pic’s low budget and 16-day-shoot.