Boaz Yakin’s “Death in Love” is a fascinating mess – sprawling, passionate, conflicted, confused, contrary.
I wouldn’t expect anything less from Yakin, director of films as varied as “Fresh,” “A Price Above Rubies” and “Remember the Titans.” Even at its most preposterous or perfunctory, this film is never less than interesting.
Yakin’s subject is a family of unhappy, dissatisfied, controlling people in New York. The Holocaust serves as an overlay, a starting point – but these people are screwed up all on their own.
The matriarch is played by Jacqueline Bisset, an Eastern European émigré, who has a husband and two grown sons. In flashbacks, we see that, as a teenager, she was a prisoner in a concentration camp, where she was a candidate for bizarre medical experiments. But she escaped them by seducing the head doctor and becoming his mistress for the rest of the war. (The film is set in New York in the early 1990s; otherwise, Bisset – still stunning at 65 – would be about 20 years too young for this role.)
Her two sons are intensely unhappy types. One, played by Lukas Haas, is an obsessive-compulsive shut-in, a pianist and composer who has serious food issues. The film’s central character is his older brother (Josh Lucas), who is first seen bumming out a lover with talk of the futility of life – then engaging in rough sex with another woman (Vanessa Kai), who turns out to be his boss.
Neither encounter is very satisfying. Obviously – he’s next seen attempting to masturbate (and unsuccessfully, at that).
Lucas’ unnamed character hasn’t been working; he’s been taking a break, he says. When he does go back to work, it becomes apparent why he’s so dour. He’s a con man, one who’s lost his taste for the grift: as a would-be modeling agent who preys on ordinary-looking women by telling them that, while they’re not beauties, they have a quality that could make them perfect for work in “just folks” ads and catalogs. For a fee, he adds, he can sign them up for classes he teaches on acting and modeling, and steer them to a photographer for headshots (who kicks back to the “agency”).
But during Lucas’ hiatus from work, the boss has brought in a new guy – an upbeat hustler (Adam Brody) whose go-getter approach threatens Lucas. Brody is nothing but admiring of Lucas’ work. He even convinces Lucas that the two of them could go legit and open a real modeling agency, if they teamed up.
Lucas, however, is too at odds with himself and his family to focus on this offer. His brother, who only eats certain foods (and arranges them in patterns on his plate), moves in with him to escape their domineering mother. And the mother, whose life apparently has little to do with her family, has started receiving mysterious phone calls, perhaps from the doctor who was her savior during the war.
Yakin’s script is all over the place, following themes such as mental illness, survivor guilt, infidelity, codependency, the Holocaust, self-loathing, artistic yearning – and more. There are elements of a con-man movie and a murder-mystery, but Yakin never makes up his mind about which one to focus on. This is maddening, as the film revs its engines and goes racing off on tangents that wind up as dead ends.
Still, you’ve got to admire Yakin for his willingness to make such a raw, emotional piece of work. He gets performances of great daring from Lucas, Haas and Bisset. It may not be a film with a lot of clarity to its vision – but it definitely has vision, which is rare these days.