Cleopatra's Second Husband
review by Elias Savada, 29 September 2000

Taking a branch off the Neil LaBute (pre-Nurse Betty) tree of filmmaking, writer-director-co-producer Jon Reis has planted a fashionably disturbing offshoot, fertilized with heavy doses of "Rod-Serlingesque" irony, that would be better received if the title wasnít so amorphous. The rationale for this moniker, available in the press material but not to the general public (consider this a public service announcement), is that Reis realized the similarities in the relational dynamics between his darkly dysfunctional lead characters and the disastrous sublimation of Marc Anthony to Cleopatra, at least through the tainted eyes of the 1963 Hollywood epic. As viewers, youíll be pleased to know that the results in this two-year-old effort (earlier screened at the 1998 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival), finally positioned for release by Indican Pictures, are not as historically devastating. Itís a caliginously satisfying modern morality tale saluting the pathologically inclined and a handful of diseased minds invading the LA suburbs.

Reis favors dark, claustrophobic close-ups, eventually condensing the film to a harrowing two character study. For someone with a music video background, he thankfully doesnít resort to special effects or quick edits. Not that this is a big budget effort, even if he did opt to shoot in 35mm (instead of 16mm or digital video), helped by a lot of free stock and a "great lab deal through Deluxe." The end credits reveal some family support through "extra special thanks" from numerous relatives.

Medicinally obliged Robert Marrs (Paul Hipp) is a clinically depressed and meek individual, stuck in a marriage (he was too weak to say no) to the overbearing Hallie (Bitty Schram), a barren thirty-five-year-old shrill of a bitch ("Well Iím really thirty-two, but thatís close.") content to requisition their disinterested lovemaking to the demands of her ovulation cycle and biological clock. Any passion outside of her schedule is viewed as a waste of perfectly good sperm. Robís more interested in watching his tropical fish than trying to salvage or opt out of his failed relationship. His wife is too self-absorbed to care about his weak-willed problems or almost famous career path as a self-employed photographer. Things move from bad to worse when the couple, off to a regimented copulation vacation in upstate New York, leave their home to friends of a friend of a friend. Left to defend the Marrsí homestead, a dog (that seems to disappear for long stretches of the action), and the aquarium are House-Sitters from Hell Zack Tyler (Boyd Kestner) and his sexually-promiscuous Australian girl friend Sophie (Radha Mitchell), who immediately let their pretenses down -- an ominous door slam signals doom -- and play house as two irresponsible children. Most of the time theyíd rather play doctor.

When the homeowners return from their own short-circuited rustic respite, their residence is a shambles. And despite the personal loss of his underwater family (the fish donít survive Act One), a reluctant Robert gets coerced by his forgiving wife to allow the houseguests a second chance and extended welcome. Big mistake. More serious ones follow. Zack gets to further bait the hook and reel in his subservient host with a little extra-marital assistance and nipple clamps from the seductive Sophie, who manages some unscheduled chemical developments in Robertís dark room. The release of his sexual repression is discovered by the already scornful Hallie. Tongue-tied and lacking any excuses for his behavior, the wimpish adulterer leaves her the perfect escape route out of their emotionally troubled life. Hell hath no fury like a housewife spurned.

The manipulation and emasculation of the milksop continue; the visiting Svengali mesmerizes his apt pupil into vacating the comfort of his master bedroom for the cramped guest quarters. The film spirals down into a psychologically depressing variation of the Odd Couple. Whenever Robertís milquetoast Felix Unger cleans up and cooks up a culinary storm to make peace with his torturers, Zackís domineering Oscar Madison manages to cut his adversary off at the knees. Sometimes with excruciating force (male rape), and sometimes with a deceptive, underhanded gesture, such as when Zack buys his housemate a "gift" that further exemplifies the domestication of his generally-absent manhood.

The stronger of the male species gets single-handedly sadistic, leeching off Robertís sad excuse for a human being. Zack pilfers Robertís credit, his limited good name, installs his own phone line (not at his expense, of course), and invites numerous high priced hookers in to salvage through Hallieís designer rags (as long as he gets half of whatever they can get for them). Somehow the sissified coach potato with nerves of soggy cardboard sucks up his depression and salvages the slim respect his deserves. Ah, sweet revenge.

Beware the Ides of Marrs.

Written and
Directed by:

Jon Reis

Paul Hipp
Boyd Kestner
Bitty Schram
Radha Mitchell
Alexis Arquette
Jonathan Penner
Nancye Ferguson




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