Dirty Weekend: Give and Take, by Aaron Pinkston
Despite being a reasonably acclaimed and sometimes controversial writer-director, I had never seen a Neil LaBute film until his newest release, Dirty Weekend. Gathering what I understand of LaBute’s work, this does seem to fit in with his overall style – it is a script-driven film, contained over a small amount of time and space, and encroaches on audacious themes. The language is elevated, punched with a consistently dry humor. Though it may fit the auteur’s work, Dirty Weekend probably isn’t the best place to start. This is a case where narrative confinements work against the film, with a one-joke premise stretched too thin without something else (a standout performance, character, a clever narrative turn or more of a pushing of the envelope) to save it.
Dirty Weekend takes places over a single day layover in Albuquerque in route to Dallas for an important business meeting. Les (Matthew Broderick) and Natalie (Alice Eve) are co-workers assigned to strike a big deal, but they don’t know much about each other. Instead of waiting at the airport for the weather to clear up, Les decides to go into the city with a poor excuse that doesn’t fool Natalie. Partly curious, partly needing to stick together to catch the earliest plane possible, Natalie tags along and discovers more about her colleague.
I doubt it was intentional casting, but Les (and the film at-large) is sort of an anti-Ferris Bueller. Here, the day-off situation is mostly wasted trying to get one specific thing done. Through the first half of the film what Les is looking for/trying to accomplish is kept a frustrating secret. As more information trickles out it is revealed that Les is looking for a specific someone with who he may have had a brief and uncharacteristic affair. This builds awkwardly in scenes like when Les stops in front of a sex store and stares blankly at the erotic merchandise while claiming ignorance to their effect on him.
More frustrating, Natalie’s major plot largely involves an off-screen problem – basically that she hasn’t come to terms with the sub/dom relationship she has with her girlfriend. Because we can’t really see the issue play out her whole character becomes underdefined. Instead, the film substitutes in an obnoxious, clumsy metaphor literally worn around Natalie’s neck. Overall, Dirty Weekend struggles giving actions or objects true meaning.
Broderick plays in his wheelhouse, a bit nebbish and a bit cynical. The film’s main goal is breaking down the buttoned-up dweeb in a sexually progressive plot. Tieing him to Natalie, who is also a bit buttoned-up on the surface, but much more free and open about herself and her proclivities, offers material for their broad conversations. The character is a little too caustic to be likeable but a little too naive to be wholly unlikeable.
Dirty Weekend really lives or dies on the interplay of its two leads as their conversations take up most of the film from start to finish. The fact that they know very little about each other, coupled with being obviously very different personalities on the surface, amounts for a lot of awkward posturing. This set-up would typically lean toward an exploration of their quickly-growing relationship. They offer occasional advice and spur their mate to an action, but the film ultimately feels more interested in building each character independently. As they spend most of the film together, that makes for a weird character dynamic.
More than once the characters reference Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to describe their relationship, which isn’t a favorable comparison. Besides the pun of Natalie, being a lesbian, is Butch, there isn’t much to grasp here. Obviously, the famous movie duo is shorthand for a misfit partnership, but Les and Natalie’s inability to truly connect on a satisfying level is one of the film’s biggest issues.
Comedically, Dirty Weekend works to give raunchy material a matter-of-fact tone. A particular consequence is stretching out the joke, perhaps with the idea that the drollness would enhance the inevitable discomfort. Most of the second and third act is a vacillating “did he or didn’t he” plot that runs out of steam long before the end. Strangely, to the film’s credit, it unexpectedly ends in a quietly complex and sweet place. I don’t quite think the slow-stepping plot is worth the outcome, but the consistent tone does pay off.