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


The Lifeguard

Despite the old adage that “you can never go home again,” a lot of movie characters do just that. It's become a shorthand way of getting across the idea that a character is lost in life. After all, healthy, well-adjusted people don't move back into their childhood bedrooms in their parents' homes, do they? The Lifeguard, which played at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, is the latest movie to bring someone back to their hometown in search of life's big answers.

Kristen Bell stars as Leigh London, an Associated Press reporter who is having an unsuccessful fling with her boss and experiencing some professional problems. Frustrated and unhappy, she quits her job and returns to the small Connecticut town where she grew up. Her mother (Amy Madigan) is none too happy about Leigh moving back in. She does, however, get a job – the same job lifeguarding at a local pool that she held in high school. Leigh's nights are spent running around with her old pals, Todd (Martin Starr), a gay art gallery worker, and Mel (Mamie Gummer), a vice principal with marriage issues. They smoke weed, recapture their adolescent vibe, and generally encourage one another to regress from responsibility and maturity. Leigh even gets involved in a romantic relationship with a teenager, “Little Jason” (David Lambert), who hangs around the pool a lot.

You can almost certainly guess the story arc The Lifeguard takes. Leigh goes home, starts acting like a teenager again, realizes that doing this makes her problems worse instead of better, and accepts that she's got to grow up. While familiar, that can – and has been – an effective trajectory in many films. It doesn't work here because of the screenplay from Cold Case writer Liz W. Garcia (who also makes her directing debut). She doesn't seem to know how to make Leigh's internal struggles external, so that the audience understands the choices she's making. The stilted dialogue reveals little about her psychology. Therefore, things seem to happen arbitrarily rather than organically. Why does Leigh start smoking pot? Well, because it's a convenient way for a screenwriter to have a character loosen up. Why does she start dating a teen? Because the movie needs dramatic conflict. Rather than feeling as though we're emotionally connected to Leigh during her descent, we're all too aware of the machinations of the screenplay, struggling to find ways to sink her and then bring her back up. Nowhere is this more evident than in the out-of-nowhere crisis that pops up in the film's third act. Garcia, completely unable to find a way to dramatize Leigh's awakening, relies on a cheap, manipulative tragedy to snap her out of her funk.

It's a shame, because Kristen Bell is quite good in the role, doing what she can with subpar material. The supporting performances are generally good too (although Amy Madigan's performance is surprisingly unconvincing). Mamie Gummer (a dead ringer for her mom, Meryl Streep) provides the movie's only genuine moment, as Mel confronts Leigh over her behavior while simultaneously chastising herself. There are a couple mildly humorous moments along the way too, as well as some surprisingly graphic sex scenes that certainly aren't boring, if you know what I mean.

In the end, though, it's simply impossible to work up much empathy for Leigh London. We never really get to know this young woman. Her actions seem guided by a poorly-written screenplay, not by actual circumstance. The Lifeguard contains individual moments of interest, yet it doesn't coalesce into a meaningful journey.

( out of four)

The Lifeguard is rated R for strong sexuality, brief graphic nudity, drug use, language and a disturbing image - some involving teens. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.

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