Unmade Beds (1997): Nicholas Barker’s Serio-Comedy about New York Single Scene

What begins as a poignantly serio-comic exploration of the New York single scene among a grown-up set of individuals gradually turns into an exceedingly cynical and repetitive experience in Unmade Beds.

Intermittently engaging but overextending its welcome by at least 15 minutes, Brit helmer Nicholas Barker’s film blends non-fictional and fictional elements to some dubious effects. Picture may warrant limited theatrical release in major urban centers, with stronger potential for TV airings and touring the global festival circuit.

In 1995, Barker hired a team of researchers who disguised themselves as singles on the prowl. The crew attended typical singles events, played the personal adds, frequented popular bars and coffee shops and so on. After interviewing 400 New Yorkers on the phone and on video, Barker selected four protagonists and then directed them as if he were making a feature rather than a docu. Result is an interesting but flawed effort, based on observations of actual conduct, which were freely supplemented by the director’s inventions.

The most vivacious and loud-mouthed of the quartet is Brenda Monte, a divorced mother of a teenage daughter. Talking to the camera, Brenda share with the audience her financial problems in securing a condo, the meaning of being a mother, etc. She also relates quite hilariously the obsession of some men with showing her their pennies: “Recently,” she notes, “I’ve been up to two a day.”

Michael De Stefano is a bachelor who lives in Brooklyn and works for the Transportation Department. Fighting the stigma of “still single at 40” and occasional suspicions that he might be gay, Michael has been searching for a wife in the personal columns for the past 15 years. A keen Yankee fan, Aimee Copp, 28, is determined to be married by the age of 30. To accomplish that, she double dates with her best friend, Laurie, who’s usually more successful in attracting men.

The oldest in the group is Mikey Russo, 54, a film enthusiast who has written several screenplays that star himself in the leading role. Despite setbacks–his scripts are sent back without being opened–he remains committed to writing and enjoys sharing his ideas with younger females.

Barker’s strategy becomes clear as the movie progresses. Each individual is marked by a dominant characteristic: Aimee is burdened with a weight of 225 pounds, which she’s forced to publicly acknowledge at the end of the film. Brenda’s chest size is 38D, but she’s ungracefully aging. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, she stands in front of the mirror in her sexy black underwear and examines her sagging skin, large hips and other changes induced by aging.

Barker exposes the prejudices and self-delusions of the four members (three of whom are Italian-American) in a comic manner, but one that’s often too harsh and unflattering. All four are so desperate to find a companion that they seldom talk about other aspects of their lives. Their obsessions could be a function of the questions posed to them and/or of Barker’s editorializing of the assembled footage. The director claims that 10 percent of the material is a “scripted pack of lies,” but there’s no way of telling which of the elements are fictional and which are not.

In what seems like a tribute to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Barker shot silent stories through the apartment windows of some 20 anonymous New Yorkers, seen in the morning as they get out of bed and prepare for their day. But these snap shots are used as no more than stylistic pauses among the various episodes.

Unmade Beds is a film in which most of the vital information and anecdotes are disclosed in the first reels, with subsequent ones mostly illustrating and elaborating on what’s already known. Each character is intriguing for a while, but as an ensemble, they provide strenuously overbearing company for a feature-length film.