Roberta: Eric Mandelbaum’s Feature Directing Debut at Sundance Film Fest

Sundance Film Festival 1999–

What begins as an intriguing exploration of a white man’s obsession with a Hispanic prostitute quickly turns into a psychologically shallow and politically naive melodrama in Roberta, Eric Mandelbaum’s feature directorial debut.

Even Kevin Corrigan’s solid central performance can’t redeem a bleak, meandering film, burdened with so many narrative and characterization bumps that its best chance to be seen on the big screen is in the regional festival circuit.

Jonathan Fishman (Kevin Corrigan) is a young computer specialist who inherited some money after his father’s death. One day, while taking a break from his consultance job in Downtown Manhattan, he encounters a prostitute (Daisy Rojas), whom he believes is Roberta, a girl he knew when they were both children in Queens. He becomes intrigued–to say the least–and begins to follow her.

Roberta can’t understand Jonathan’s interest in her, for he makes it clear from their first meeting that sex is not a motive. Before long, Jonathan invites her to his home, goes on a shopping spree with her, and so on. To the dismay of his friend Sam (Johnny Tran) and his prospective business partner, Donald (Brian Tarantina), Jonathan moves Roberta off the streets into his apartment, gets her a typewriter and begins instructing her the skills necessary to find a cleaner office job.

In the first reel, Mandelbaum establishes that Jonathan is a sensitive but lonely man, who spends quiet evenings at home, eating dinners with his turtle. Later, a date is arranged with a school teacher, Judy (Amy Ryan), and a tentative affair begins, though Jonathan remains an enigma to her. When Jonathan is threatened by Alex (Ed Vassallo), Roberta’s violent pimp, he asks Judy to take care of Roberta and the two women develop a friendship until Roberta shows physical attraction to Judy.

The narrative is structured in terms of asymmetric chapters, spanning from June to January, during which Jonathan’s obsession with Roberta gets deeper and darker to the point where he’s willing to spend all of his savings to buy her from her pimp. Mandelbaum’s tale is no doubt well-intentioned, but as scripter he seems clueless as to who his protagonist is, and what precisely guides his behavior, other than a superficial Freudian notion that his father was a crook and that he never stood up to him.

Though trying to be understanding and compassionate to the underprivileged and abused Roberta, Jonathan fails to realize that his relationship with Roberta is totally one-sided–it’s basically Pygmalion, with Jonathan playing Professor Higgins. He doesn’t learn anything from Roberta, and it’s not entirely clear why he would risk his life for her, particularly after his apartment is vandalized. The politics of this anti-capitalistic morality tale are also problematic: the viewers’ sympathy is not with Jonathan but with Roberta, because she goes from being dependent on a pimp to being dominated by a white guy who’s oblivious to her individuality and personal needs.

Wearing its liberal politics on its sleeves, Roberta is the kind of film in which most of the white characters, except for Jonathan, are career-oriented and self-absorbed. The ending, in which Jonathan loses his life in a fatal interaction with Alex, is dreary, and the last shot, which shows Roberta working as a secretary in an office, is naive considering the yarn’s governing gloomy tone.

Overall, Mandelbaum acquits himself better as director than writer, giving Roberta, with the assistance of his gifted lenser, Kevin Murphy, an arresting visual texture, particularly in the first segments, which consist of long shots from Jonathan’s subjective P.O.V., as he stands on the streets and scans Manhattan’s seedy underbelly.

Credits

A Moving Parts production.
Produced by David Kashkooli and Eric Mandelbaum.
Directed, written by Eric Mandelbaum.
Camera (color), Kevin Murphy; editor, Sam Adelman; production design, Katherine M. Szilagyi; art direction, costume design, Lisa Padovani; sound (Dolby), Dave Raphael assistant director, Sarah Brandston; casting, Stephanie Klapper. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (dramatic competition), Jan. 22, 1999. Running time: 86 min.

Cast

BJonathan…Kevin Corrigan
Roberta…….Daisy Rojas
Judy………….Amy Ryan
Philip……….Bill Sage
Donald….Brian Tarantina
Sam………..Johnny Tran
Alex……….Ed Vassallo