Just Looking (1999) **
Director, Jason Alexander. Writer, Marshall Karp. Photography, Fred Schuler. Editing, Norman Hollyn. Production design, Michael Johnston. Music, Michael Skloff.. Cast: Ryan Merriman, Joseph Franquinha, Peter Onorati, Gretchen Mol, Amy Braverman, Ilana Levine, Rich Licata, Patti LuPone, John Bolger. A Sony Pictures Classics release. 97 minutes. R (sex talk, sex glimpsed) At the Art.
Background will tell. Director Jason Alexander comes from TV ("Seinfeld"). Writing his first feature screenplay, Marshall Karp comes from advertising and from TV. The bearable lightness of both men's experience shows in sundry technical ways (such as balance), but also in the thinness of a film which is like an extended sitcom.
The movie tries to be likable, which translates into artificial sweetener for much of its duration. Not that it is annoying or cloying. But it is featherweight.
The summer of 1955. Lenny (Ryan Merriman) is a Jewish boy of almost 14, in the Bronx. His father is dead. In one of the film's miscalculations for the sake of a dramatic revelation, we learn belatedly that the death occurred about a year earlier. This is an important factor that explains why mother (Patti LuPone) remarried so quickly. Her second husband is a Jewish butcher whom Lenny dislikes.
The boy is obsessed with sex. His curiosity, though not shown as prurient, is single-minded: he wants to figure out the mystery by watching how couples "do it." Granted that 1955 was a more innocent time, Lenny's ignorance, at 14, is unconvincing, in spite of the fact that the period had no helpful cable TV and videos. His burning desire almost leads him to peeping at his mother and his stepfather, in action. But he fails.
To have some of what might be later called "quality time" together, mom packs the kid off to her younger sister who lives with her Italian-American husband in the then more airy and green Queens. (Some jokes about Italians and Jews being different tribes surface here as they do in other films. Nobody seems to know that there exist Italian Jews, many of them celebrities, like author Primo Levi or Sergio Leone who invented Spaghetti Westerns along with Clint Eastwood)
The Queens aunt is pregnant, an obstacle to Lenny's observing her and hubby Phil practicing sex. Phil owns a deli. His summer helper John is about Lenny's age. Phil asks Lenny to help too. The boys become friends, especially upon discovering that share the same mania about the sex act. There's also a bonus, as John and two local girls have a "sex club." This simply means talking about sex. (Some laughs here as the more enlightened girls impress the ignorant boys, with facts of life, often wrong.)
Into the picture comes neighbor Hedy (Gretchen Mol) a twenty-something nurse. She is gorgeous, charming to young and old, and --hold on!-- she once posed for bra ads. Will the boys be captivated? Silly question. Another bonus: Hedy has a visiting MD boyfriend. The couple might be spied, binoculars helping, making love. Wow!
Matters get rather edgy and messy (don't ask- I won't tell.) They lead to a seance where Hedy pours her heart out to the kid and speaks with him as to an adult. Bonding follows, then a melodramatic series of TV-ish developments resulting in Lenny's a) becoming the hero of the day, b) learning about life and the weaknesses of adults, and c) coming to terms with his stepfather. In (b) and (c) Sweet 'n Lo turns into genuine sugar.
Karp says that his whole story is semi-autobiographical, which is neither a plus nor a minus. The tale however is neither involving nor audience-alienating. While the teens become a bit tedious, there are nice bits of humor (several of them inside the deli) and nostalgia-laden visuals. The painstaking reconstruction of the mid-50s (clothes, stores, artifacts, songs, etc.) is pleasant.
Note: The movie was shown at the 1999 Hamptons film festival but released in the fall-early winter of 2000.