Seldom has any movie illustrated the Peter Principle more vividly than If Lucy Fell. This obnoxiously smug little comedy is the second feature to be written and directed by Eric Schaeffer, a newcomer who attracted attention two years ago with a modestly engaging low-budget effort called My Life's in Turnaround. For his second film, however, Schaeffer has a bigger budget, a more high-profile cast, much glossier production values -- and nothing much to show for it.
Maybe Schaeffer might have benefited from some cinematic equivalent of baseball's farm system. Maybe, just maybe, with one or two more warm-up movies under his belt, he would have been ready for the big time. In any case, it's worth noting that Schaeffer starred in his first film as a discontented cabdriver who decides to become an independent filmmaker "like that Slacker guy" before fully understanding just what the job entails. The central joke of the film is that after he and an equally underqualified buddy simply announce their intention to make a movie, things more or less fall into place for them. Maybe Schaeffer thought it worked that way in real life, too.
Unfortunately, If Lucy Fell only serves to underscore how much Schaeffer has yet to learn. Even on the most rudimentary level of matching shots, he is a rank amateur. Just look at the extended dialogue between Schaeffer and co-star Elle Macpherson in the latter's apartment. Each time Schaeffer cuts back to himself, it's painfully obvious that Macpherson's head isn't tilted the same way it is in her own close-up. This is something you're taught not to do in most Filmmaking 101 courses.
As for the plot, it is a seriously unamusing contrivance about two whiny and self-absorbed friends -- Lucy (Sarah Jessica Parker), a therapist, and Joe (Schaeffer), a painter -- who fear the prospect of reaching 30 without making a serious romantic commitment. Very early in the game, it's clear that these two losers are made for each other. But even though they share a Manhattan apartment, and occasionally snuggle up in bed together, their relationship is purely platonic. They've been friends since their college days and, apparently, have never felt the desire to be more intimate than that.
For the past five years, Joe has yearned hopelessly for Jane (Macpherson), the beautiful neighbor he's been watching through his bedroom window. She is the inspiration for his paintings, and the superstar of his romantic fantasies. Trouble is, he's never been able to work up the nerve to actually talk to her, even when they're in close proximity at the neighborhood grocery store.
Lucy, too, has failures of nerve. She can't bring herself to tell her emotionally reserved father (James Rebhorn) that she would rather open an elementary school than take over his clinic. And she can't make a commitment to anyone she dates, even if the dating lasts for more than two years.
Shortly after Lucy drops the latest in a long line of blandly unsatisfying boyfriends, she and Joe recall a suicide pact they made while they were college students. Back then, they vowed to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge -- together -- if they hadn't found true love by the time they turned 30. Now that Lucy's 30th birthday is less than a month away, their self-imposed deadline has returned to haunt them. And that, Lucy figures, may be just the incentive they need. She figures that if they don't find significant others within the next 30 days, they owe it to themselves to take the big plunge. ("Let God start fresh with us," says Lucy, a firm believer in reincarnation.) Reluctantly, Joe agrees.
What happens next to Lucy and Joe is supposed to be charming, whimsical and lightly comical. It isn't. Indeed, after enduring 30 minutes or so of their tediously silly romantic misadventures, don't be surprised if you find yourself shouting, "Jump! Jump!"
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Parker has proven herself to be a smart and sexy comic actress in movies such as Miami Rhapsody and Honeymoon in Vegas. So it says a lot about Schaeffer's abilities as director and screenwriter that she comes off so shrill, charmless and off-puttingly affected in If Lucy Fell. As for Schaeffer's own acting abilities, suffice it to say that his faith in his on-screen charisma is even more misplaced than his faith in his ability as a writer and director.
At his most self-consciously cute, though, Schaeffer is still far less repulsive than Ben Stiller, who takes a showoff-y turn as Bwick Elias, a hip artist whose garish clothes and flowing dreadlocks mark him as a trendy buffoon. The character is clearly meant to be a caricature of such New York art-word celebrities, but Stiller plays him as being, if not mentally retarded, then close enough for it not to make much difference. That Lucy is supposed to fall for this freak doesn't speak well for her taste in men, not to mention her common sense. By sharp contrast, Elle Macpherson's Jane manages to assert herself as the most mature and levelheaded person on screen. She thinks all this obsessive talk of sudden, overwhelming love at first sight is, well, foolish. The important thing, she says, is to look for something steady and reliable in a relationship. When Joe walks away from this wise woman, it's hard not think that he deserves to sleep with the fishes.
If Lucy Fell is an aimless and formless mess, sluggish in its pacing and self-indulgent in its discursiveness. The movie is so slovenly put together that at least one supporting character, an adolescent girl who apparently knows a lot about Lucy, is never really identified. Is she Lucy's younger sister? One of her patients? A student at the school where Joe is a part-time art teacher? If Schaeffer knows, he isn't saying. Or if he shot a scene that explains who she is, he left it on the cutting room floor -- which is where, come to think of it, he should have left the rest of this fiasco.
If Lucy Fell.
Directed by Eric Schaeffer. With Sarah Jessica Parker, Ben Stiller and Elle Macpherson. Rated R. 93 minutes.