The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Authors Anonymous

It has been said that writing is the most difficult subject to make a movie about because it's such an interior, solitary process. Plenty of films have managed to do it successfully (Barton Fink, Capote, and Adaptation come to mind), but this usually occurs by pulling back and showing the events that are inspiring the writing. Authors Anonymous, it could be argued, has found something even tougher than being about writing: the film is about wanting to write. The approach used to address this topic is the movie's biggest liability, yet it still gets a lot of fundamental things right about the desire to communicate through the written word.

Shot in mockumentary format, Authors Anonymous is the story of a group of dysfunctional aspiring writers who have formed a group to evaluate one another's work. They are: Henry (Chris Klein), a sincere but unmotivated guy with a deep appreciation for the great writers; Hannah (Kaley Cuoco), Henry's crush and a young woman who is completely ignorant about literature; Alan and Colette Mooney (Dylan Walsh and Teri Polo), an image-obsessed optometrist and his shallow wife; William (Jonathan Bennett), a rebel who keeps rewriting the same three pages; and John K. Butzin (Dennis Farina), a Tom Clancy wannabe who is endlessly inventive in his ability to self-delude. When we first meet them, everyone is mutually supportive. Then Hannah gets a book deal and suddenly petty jealousies change the fabric of the group.

Writing, like any art form, requires a certain amount of ego. Not the bad kind of ego, just a belief that what one has to say will be worth reading by others. Everyone who puts pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keyboard) does so with the hope that strangers will by moved by their thoughts and articulations. Authors Anonymous captures what it's like to be starting out, to have that ambition and to be desperately looking for a way to fulfill it. Some of the characters clearly have no talent but don't know it, such as Alan, who constantly records inane story ideas into a tape recorder. Others, like John, are derivative; rather than finding their own voice, they try to adopt someone else's, unaware that this approach rarely leads to success. And then there are those like Hannah and Henry. She's going places. He could, too, if he could only find his focus. I don't know how non-writers will respond to Authors Anonymous, but there's a lot to identify with for anybody who's ever longed to make it in writing or, more importantly, traveled amongst writers. That includes the movie's humorous take on rivalries. Several characters swallow the bitter pill of watching their friends succeed, only to ask that eternally-burning question, “Why didn't that happen to me instead?”

Chris Klein and Kaley Cuoco are very good here. Although it's an ensemble cast, they're clearly the leads. Klein does the best work of his career, bringing a very subtle yet relatable sense of misplaced passion to Henry. He loves Hannah, but is ironically too tongue-tied to find the words to tell her. He also yearns to walk in the footsteps of Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, yet he allows his attention to be diverted by other things, thus hindering his creativity. Klein effectively brings across all these contradictions. Cuoco, meanwhile, does a very shrewd thing in not tipping her hand about her character. Initially, we think Hannah is, frankly, kind of dumb. As the story progresses, we realize that she's simply less guarded – and therefore much more in touch with her own creativity – than it initially appears. It's this quality that allows Hannah to get ahead. The actress is utterly charming in the role. The best performance, however, comes from the late Dennis Farina, who is hilarious as John K. Butzin. (The character always refers to himself in the third person.) Farina nails that bizarre, narcissistic quality some wannabes have, and the way he plays Butzin's attempts to convince himself that he's making it despite all evidence to the contrary is priceless.

While there is much to enjoy in Authors Anonymous, it's hard to deny that the choice to shoot the film in mockumentary style was a disaster. The “writer's group” concept can't really sustain the format, nor can the Henry/Hannah romance. It would have been much better as a regular, narrative story. Besides, the movie doesn't even play by its own rules. In one scene, Henry delivers pizza to a man who inquires about the cameras. As he talks, we get a shot from behind the man, i.e. taken from inside his own house. If the guy doesn't know about the documentary crew, how did they get inside? Having the characters break the fourth wall to address the camera directly also creates an inconsistency in performance. Walsh and Polo play very broadly, while the other cast members are more subtle. Like “found footage,” the mockumentary style has become very popular, and like John K. Butzin, many filmmakers don't realize that trying to emulate what has worked for others isn't automatically a path to glory.

In the end, Authors Anonymous ends up being a mixed bag. Some good performances and amusing insights into the minds of aspiring writers are undone by a format that doesn't fully support them. The stuff that works will ring a few bells for writers, though, and that may make it worth a conditional look.

( 1/2 out of four)

Authors Anonymous is rated PG-13 for some suggestive material. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.

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