How to Make the Cruelest Month (1998): Kip Koenig’a Sundance Indie, Starring Clea DuVall and Gabriel Mann

Sundance Film Fest 1998 (Dramatic Competition)–Though brimming with fresh ideas, zany humor and offbeat characters, the aptly titled comedy, How to Make the Cruelest Month, also displays the sheer audacity, messy structure, and lack of discipline that often characterize first features.

As writer and director, Kip Koenig exhibits a remarkable sensitivity for the raw energy and sexual and moral confusion of American youngsters today.  Drastic cuts, particularly in the mid section, should improve the theatrical prospects for a picture that’s vastly uneven, but holds special appeal for the twentysomething crowd which is likely to connect emotionally with the young and vibrant ensemble onscreen.

How to Make the Cruelest Month recalls in spirit and ambition, if not in execution, the early comedies of Woody Allen and, more recently, David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster. In sharp contrast to the anomie and alienation that mark the youth movies of Gregg Araki or Richard Linklater, Koenig seems more forgiving and tolerant of the various anxieties and confusions that beset American youth of the 1990s.

Almost a female version of the young Woody Allen screen character, protagonist is Bell (Clea DuVall), a bright, neurotic, fast-talking, sexually confused woman. Like Allen’s protagonists, periodically, Bell steps out of her role and addresses the camera directly, sharing with the audience her innermost fears and feelings.

In the first, rather deftly scripted monologue, Bell confides about the impossibility of realizing New Year’s resolutions which, after all, “are not only supposed to make your life better, they are supposed to make you feel better about yourself.” Two goals high on her list are to quit smoking and to fall in love. Since the first resolution proves taxing, Bell channels all of her energy into achieving the second one–against all odds.

It doesn’t help that she’s the least attractive and most problematic of three sisters. Sarah (Jorja Fox), the eldest, is happily married and about to give birth, whereas Dot (Amy Smart), is clearly the family’s beauty, a graceful, feminine blonde. To complicate matters, Dot has an affair with Bell’s ex, Leonard (Gabriel Mann), which increases Bell’s insecurities. In an early sequence, Bell takes Leonard to a remote place, begins making love to him in the car and then runs away, leaving the totally naked man stranded and bewildered.

Finding his way back home, Leonard stumbles into the house of a married couple, Manhattan (Dennis Haysbert) and Christina (Secrets & Lies’ Marianne jean-Baptiste). In what are the film’s weakest scenes–and could easily be reduced–Manhattan engages in endless monologues about fishing, while his unsatisfied wife acts out on her attraction for Leonard, who’s the type of handsome and vulnerable guy women find particularly appealing.

As the story progresses, it seems, as Bell says, “that I’m smoking more and falling in love less.” Out of desperation and confusion, Bell even entertains the idea that she might be a lesbian and goes on a date with a woman. Wherever she turns and whatever she touches proves to be strenuous and problematic. Hysterically rushing from one encounter to another, Bell faces her eccentric Uncle Jerry (John David Souther), who’s also her teacher, and her laid-back mom (Mary Kay Place), who, later on, discloses, rather nonchalantly, her longtime affair with Uncle Jerry. Happy ending, in which Bell falls for her sister’s doctor, is too cutesy and fake.

Though the entire yarn is set in a small college town and the action is confined to a few buildings, How to Make assumes the logic of a zany road movie, populated by a large gallery of eccentric characters. Problem is, Koenig tries to do too much, throwing more balls in the air than he can possibly juggle. Result is a comedy that’s ultimately more laboriously exhausting than hilariously entertaining.

There are not many quiet moments in the movie, but there are too many dull and static episodes that don’t pay off. As a comedy director, Koenig needs to learn how to modulate the pacing of the numerous vignettes that form his episodic narrative. Too many scenes are off-key, with a tempo that either drifts lazily or rushes frantically.

In the lead role, Clea DuVall is well cast as the tomboyish, neurotic Bell, though her performance is occasionally too intensely mannered. The large ensemble is for the most part exuberant and enticing, with standout work from Mary Kay Place as the mother, John David Souther as Uncle Jerry, and Leonard Crane as l’homme fatale. Regrettably, two of the cast’s most graceful pros, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Dennis Haysbert, are burdened with stiff roles that highlight the weaknesses of the entire picture.

Credits

A Fugue State and Magnet Productions presentation.
Produced by Alison Dickey, Mark Lipson. Executive producer, James R. Hedges.
Co-producer, Caitlin Abramovitz.
Directed, written by Kip Koenig.
Camera (color), Julian Whatley; editor, Chris Figler; music, Jeff Martin; production design, Jodi Ginnever; set decoration, Melissa K. Frankel; costume design, Agnes NaDene Baddoo, Dalhia Schuette; sound (Dolby), Larry Blake; associate producers, Scott Kennedy, Luis Barajas, Alberto Gieco; assistant director, Marie O’Keefe; casting, Joseph Middleton.

Running time: 99 min.

Cast

Bell Bryant………………Clea DuVall
Leonard Crane……………Gabriel Mann
Uncle Jerry………..John David Souther
Mary Bryant……………Mary Kay Place
Christina Parks…Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Manhattan Parks……….Dennis Haysbert
Fryer Crane……………..John Voskamp
Dot Bryant…………………Amy Smart
Westy…………………..James Duvall
Sarah Bryant……………….Jorja Fox
Dr. Rutledge……….Christopher Gartin
Rickey………………Frederick Weller