The Movie Waffler First Look Review - HELLO AGAIN | The Movie Waffler

First Look Review - HELLO AGAIN

Screen adaptation of the cult Off-Broadway musical.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Tom Gustafson

Starring: Martha Plimpton, Sam Underwood, Nolan Gerard Funk, Audra McDonald, Rumer Willis

There’s no musical like a New York musical. The home of the modern musical, after all, is Manhattan’s Broadway, the theatrical district which rose in prominence during the 1930s' depression, providing not only escapist entertainment to beleaguered New Yorkers, but an emblem of aspirational glamour and optimism for an entire country. In its turn, cinema has respected this tradition with productions such as West Side Story, Rent, 42nd Street et al intended to reflect the idiosyncratic personality of this twofold titled city; a hyperreal genre to represent an exaggerated, extravagant milieu. It is telling, too, that NY’s cinema laureate Martin Scorsese immediately balanced his grim Taxi Driver with the more celebratory New York, New York (and its iconic, singalong theme). Perhaps the city which was so-good-they-named-it-twice was christened as such because there are two New Yorks: the neon lit Big Apple, and its darker, more bohemian core. In terms of theatre, this dichotomy could perhaps be encapsulated by the corporate allure of Broadway itself, and the more experimental, arty Off-Broadway. And so, to Tom Gustafson’s cinematic revival of the Off-Broadway standard Hello Again, a sex-mad adaptation of LaChiusa's celebrated musical, which itself was originally based on Schnitzler's play La Ronde.

The palimpsest origins of Gustafon’s film are fitting to its kaleidoscopic, time shifting plot, which cuts across the twentieth century to 10 separate (or are they?) encounters between chronologically crossed lovers. There is an amorous happenstance which reflects each decade, replete with appropriate music stylings to reflect the given era.  We open in the modern day, with Martha Plimpton (for it is she) wandering purposefully through a thrift-store junk yard of glitter balls, globes and neon diamonds to a backstreet peep show. The framing device continues within the kiosk, with Plimpton confessing to the puckish fella (muscles, tats and domino mask) behind a screen that she ‘doesn’t know how to get to where I don’t know where I’m at’. Join the club, Martha! To which indulgent introspection the lad in the mask gnomically instructs, ‘once you’ve finished looking outside, look within’: yes, it’s one of those films, I’m afraid.

Hello Again’s narrative is structured through a series of soliloquies, musical numbers enacted by characters who are undergoing sexual existentialism. For instance, our first sequence in 1910 finds a shore leave squaddie being seduced by a sex worker (Rumer Willis, the spit of her dad), a relationship finitely fated to this singular, illicit liaison (right, what is it with musicals and prostitutes? Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Sweet Charity, etc: the depiction of sex work within this deeply conservative medium has always felt a bit off to me). Likewise, we then shimmy off to a doowop 1944, where another fella fancies a waitress: this relationship is equally doomed due to class boundaries, so instead they have a couple of nice shags and sing about it. And so on.

The problem with Hello Again is two-fold: none of the liaisons are especially interesting, and most of the songs aren’t either (nothing here that you’d whistle on the way to work, for instance). In 1897 when Schnitzler originally wrote La Ronde in order to apply a level of scrutiny to sexual mores, his work was genuinely transgressive. Conversely, Gustafon’s film has the simple cadences of soft-pornography, wherein stereotypes meet in a specific situation and end up having it off. When we meet characters, we know it’s just a matter of time before they get down to it (and I’m not equating any and all sexual representation with pornography either; it’s just that here the sex looks and feels like something from a '90s ‘erotic’ thriller). However, my favourite sequences were the ones that involved Jenna Ushkowitz and Audra McDonald, two women whose charisma, beauty and talent supercharge the scenes they’re in with pure performative magic. In a film which is inclined to prioritise the anxiety of men (an early scene centres upon a monologing guy unable to climax as his mistress does an Alanis Morrissette on him at the pictures - get over yourself, mate - and it seemed to me that the gay relations were more happily consummated in a way that their straight counterparts were not; ‘bout time, amirite lads?), these performances are contradictory and stunning. Ushkowitz radiates an energy which the film can hardly cope with, while McDonald, a veteran of Broadway with umpteen Tony awards, stands astride her scenes like a colossus. Her sex scene with Plimpton is distinctive for its intimacy, eroticism and implied passion. Initiated by McDonald’s character, the sequence seems real in the sense that you feel like a voyeur, like you shouldn’t be watching. She brings an emotional truth to a film that sets out to explore sexual relations, but which rarely gets its jazz hands dirty.