Combustible Celluloid
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With: Vera Farmiga, Domenick Lombardozzi, Jill Hennessy, Malcolm Gets, Steve Buscemi, Rosario Dawson, Adrian Grenier, Carol Kane, Michael Imperioli, Alexa Fischer, Ross Gibby, Nahanni Johnstone, John Ottavino
Written by: Peter Mattei, based loosely upon "Reigen" by Arthur Schnitzler
Directed by: Peter Mattei
MPAA Rating: R for a disturbing violent image, strong sexual content and language
Running Time: 90
Date: 01/11/2002

Love in the Time of Money (2002)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Vicious Circle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Max Ophuls adapted Arthur Schnitzler's play Reigen, in 1950, he did it with a wondrous elegance, a fleet-footed grace and an earthy sexiness. The resulting film, La Ronde, ranks among the great works of the cinema. Reigen has been adapted -- specifically and loosely -- many other times, none of them nearly as good. Peter Mattei's Love in the Time of Money is the latest.

Set among self-obsessed and sometimes clich├ęd New Yorkers, Love in the Time of Money clunks along, sometimes hitting upon an interesting moment or two, but mostly missing the mark. It reminded me a bit of Ethan Hawke's Chelsea Walls, capturing just a bit of atmosphere but mostly succumbing to the trap of pretension.

The idea behind Reigen is simple. One character meets with a second. We follow the second while they meet and talk with a third. The third goes off and meets with a fourth, et cetera. The film ends when the next-to-last character meets up with the first one again, completing the circle. In La Ronde, the characters were connected either sexually or romantically, but Mattei tries to open things up beyond that, and manages only to make the material thinner.

Love in the Time of Money begins with a prostitute (Vera Farmiga) who has a failed encounter with a lower-class contract worker (Domenick Lombardozzi). The contract worker pays a call on a lonely married housewife (Jill Hennessy) and sleeps with her. But that's okay because her husband (Malcolm Gets) turns out to be gay. He visits an abstract painter (Steve Buscemi) and comes on to him. The painter flirts with a receptionist (Rosario Dawson) at a gallery and causes her to dump her boyfriend (Adrian Grenier). The boyfriend tells all his problems to a lonely, aging phone psychic (Carol Kane). She accepts a call from a distraught office worker (Michael Imperioli), and he winds up meeting the prostitute again.

Mattei gives his actors only sporadic moments to shine. The only time the husband and wife actually communicate is during a weird scene in which they try to out-appliance each other (turning up the stereo, TV, blender, etc.). Buscemi looks lost as the painter but has a good time explaining that he paints badly on purpose. Dawson is so beautiful that Mattei gets by for a few moments having her model for Buscemi's shaking hand. And it's always nice to see Kane, even though she gets a thankless "older-lady" role.

Some of these stories might serve as nuggets for more interesting, longer tales. But Mattei is unable to capture a real sense of loss, loneliness or sadness in the short time he gives them. Neither does he get the hang of the sexual tension inherent in the story that Ophuls exploited so beautifully. It doesn't help that the director and cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski (You Can Count on Me, Skins) shoot on grungy video, giving the whole thing a dirty, tasteless feel. Digital video gives up-and-coming filmmakers a better chance to break in to the business, but sometimes it feels abused -- as if Mattei simply made this film because he felt like making one, not because he had a burning need to tell this story.

Ophuls' La Ronde is available on VHS (unfortunately not DVD as of yet) and it's a good place to go to learn real cinematic artistry. Mattei and other young filmmakers could do worse than start there.

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