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Denise Calls Up

Review by Carrie Gorringe


Written and Directed by Hal Selwyn.

Starring Tim Daly, Caroleen Feeney,
Dan Gunther, Dana Wheeler Nicholson,
Liev Schreiber, Aida Turturro,
Sylvia Miles and Alanna Ubach.

In Hal Selwyn’s new film, Denise Calls Up, one of the central characters, Gail (Wheeler Nicholson), in a telephone conversation with her ex, Frank (Daly) pinpoints the central problem that all of the characters are having. She tells him, "Work can swallow you up if you let it." His response: "And we let it." But even this realization isn’t enough to shake any of these young professionals out of their interrelational torpor; being "zenned out on work" is the excuse for limiting their communications to telephone calls; when they require visual reminders of what someone looks like, they resort to faxes. Their entire lives consist of almost nothing but electronic interfacings. While this is not an unusual affliction in the modern era, their problems go deeper than a mere dependence upon technology; rather, it is the convenient way in which technology has allowed them to forego the "messy" nature of face-to-face meetings, with their inconvenience, demands and potential for pain. Laptops and telephones ever at the ready, they break luncheon and party dates while pouring a never-ending, if unvarying, stream of post-facto platitudes through their mouthpieces. A funeral for one of their group brings out only one mourner, who consoles one of the nonattendees named Linda (Turturro) with one of the most ironic lines in the film, "Death isn’t for everyone." Even their sexual relationships have an aseptic quality to them; one couple, Barbara (Feeney) and Jerry (Schreiber) meet, and conduct a torrid affair without ever once experiencing physical contact. But, of course, that’s exactly the point, since all of them have become little more than mere extensions of their electronic equipment (underscored, with a delectably nasty touch, by the manner in which their friend is found dead).

Into this emotionally sterile existence bounces Denise (Ubach), the outsider who literally takes advantage of one of the group during one of his weaker moments. It seems that Martin (Gunther) decided to "do his bit" for society by donating to a local sperm bank. One of Denise’s friends, who works at the sperm bank, made the donor’s identity known to Denise, who begins to flood Martin with phone call after phone call with details of her pregnancy while travelling on various forms of public conveyance (unlike the others, she is not afraid of the outdoors; whenever any of them venture outside of their individual spheres of influence, bad things seem to happen to them). Everyone in the group becomes involved in the pregnancy’s progress, and its effect upon the group’s dynamics, or lack thereof.

Denise Calls Up is the type of film that will either cause you to laugh knowingly, but uncomfortably, at your own plugged-in existence, or it will set your teeth on edge at the monotonously self-indulgent antics of a group of immature people who, deep down, are not only afraid of having a life, but of even getting one. As if to underscore just how much, the film cleverly maintains the rhythm of their short and essentially meaningless communications through considerable amounts of cross-cutting; the audience never gets to see each individual for much more than a few seconds on-screen. After a while, it becomes quite obvious that, if technology did not exist as their excuse, it would become necessary for them to invent, something -- anything -- to take its place. When these people use words like "responsibility" and "commitment", you can hear their voices choking on the terminology. They have more than a good idea as to what those terms mean for them: a relationship equals compromise which equals a loss of self. And, although you can’t lose what you never had, that is one fact that they all keep safely at a distance. Unfortunately, the more willful forms of self-delusion have never been a trait exclusive to any era.

To his credit, Selwyn has assembled a marvelous cast to conduct his broken-telephone comedy of errors. Standouts include Gunther and Ubach as the unlikely expectant parents, whose budding relationship (in more ways than one) becomes a necessary fulcrum for balancing the almost farcical solipsism that embodies the rest of the film. Sylvia Miles is unhealthily funny as Gale’s yenta of an aunt. So, if you’ve been staring at a computer screen too long, Denise Calls Up just might be the recharge you’re looking for.

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