Home Video Hovel- Meeting Spencer

Why isn’t this funnier? That’s what I kept asking myself as I watched Meeting Spencer, a would-be farce directed by Malcolm Mowbray (A Private Function, itself a movie I didn’t find as funny as advertised). The film really wants to be a panic and the actors are clearly trying very hard to sell the comedy but as the wacky coincidences and nutty situations piled up, it only felt somehow less and less exciting. And then I had a breakthrough, which does nothing to help this movie but I’ll get to that in a moment.  One thing’s for sure — that title does the film no favors, as the character of Spencer is neither the central character nor the most important; it feels like someone needlessly applied the We Need A Verb rule to the title, a rule that has never sat well with me as the list of movies with action verbs as the first word of the title — Waking Ned Devine, Finding Forrester, Widening Your Mom* — grows longer.

Jeffrey Tambor, as fine a comedic actor as there is these days, stars as Harris Chappell, a Hollywood director attempting to return to his Broadway roots after a string of lousy pictures.  \His old paramour Didi (Melinda McGraw) has a line on an investor for a play about Pennsylvania coal miners that could be Harris’ return ticket to the top of the heap but, as is the standard for any farce, everything goes wrong. Thrown into the maelstrom is aspiring actor Spencer West (Jesse Plemons), whom Harris is meeting as a favor to Spencer’s father and who is immediately in over his head as events spiral out of control. This trio is our lifeline as each deals with a revolving carousel of secondary characters, all of whom have their own agendas, secrets and lies; one never has trouble keeping track of this crowd and their attendant nonsense but one can’t help but wonder just why the story has to be this busy. It doesn’t help that the film is set almost entirely in a restaurant; so many people in one confined space only contributes to an overall sensation of claustrophobia — if I had this many people in my apartment, I’d probably jump out the window.

Let’s talk about what works. I love Jeffrey Tambor, and he shines brightest when he’s playing pompous clowns who are oblivious to their own foolishness; here, he’s plenty pompous but not an oblivious clown, which just makes him kind of a blowhard. Yet he retains his ability to put an unexpected spin on a line of dialogue with exquisite comic timing and this saves Harris Chappell from being merely an unbearable boor. Melinda McGraw, whom viewers may recall from her role as the wife of insufferable comedian Jimmy Barrett in Mad Men (she was also wonderful as Scott Bakula’s love interest in Men Of A Certain Age, a criminally underrated and prematurely canceled show), is quite funny as Didi, playing up the sexy and vaguely predatory aspects of her character with gusto. And Jesse Plemons is very good in his role — in his early scenes he didn’t seem like much but as the story progressed and more was asked of his character, Plemons rose to every challenge, resulting in a deceptively clever performance. I’ve still never seen Friday Night Lights, the TV show he co-starred in for five seasons but I’ll add him to the growing stack of reasons I should check it out. In addition to these actors, Jill Marie Jones is effective in her role as Nikki Ross, a pesky reporter who suspects a scoop lurking in all these shenanigans.

So why isn’t this funnier? Well, Malcolm Mowbray certainly doesn’t do the film justice — his direction is too deliberate for the material, which makes it plodding where it should be soaring. And the material itself — the screenplay by Andrew Kole, Andrew Delaplaine and Scott Kasdin — is not nearly as sparkling and clever as it dearly wants to be, with most of the laughs coming more from the actors’ delivery of the lines than from the lines themselves. And halfway through the picture, it suddenly occurred to me that what Meeting Spencer really needs is a script polish from Ben Hecht. Yes folks, Ben Hecht, the legendary writer of classic Hollywood screwball comedies like Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred and His Girl Friday… THIS is what the film really needs. (In fact, setting the story eighty years ago might have been an even better idea, since both time travel and resurrection of the dead have yet to be perfected.) And having solved that problem, I then realized that the other thing it needs is another director because Meeting Spencer is really a screwball comedy that is being smothered by a director who thinks he’s making a comedy of manners. A filmmaker with a less genteel approach than Mowbray could have played up the revolving-door absurdity of the story rather than trying to play it straight, which simply doesn’t work. And so Meeting Spencer becomes an exercise in clashing styles and an example of what can happen when an underdone screenplay is set before the cameras… a screenplay that might have been elevated by a more suitable director. That which works, works well, but what works well is sadly overwhelmed by what won’t work at all.

*Not a real movie title. But just wait.

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