Directed by Alex Lehmann
Opens October 7
I admit it: Through all of the hoopla over Sarah Paulson’s much-deserved Emmy that capped off a banner year, I’ve still been thinking of her as the leading lady from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the virtuosic sketch-comedian funnywoman who seemed profoundly humorous and, per one particularly terrible episode, could not tell a simple setup-punchline joke properly. That – every aspect of the character, really – was an absurd conceit from the master of the absurd conceit in female characters, Aaron Sorkin. But Paulson’s now-signature part as Marcia Clark in The People vs. OJ Simpson played to the same seriousness that made her such a bad fit on a fictional Saturday Night Live. She masterfully embodied the put-upon working woman too busy to conform to the media’s idea of charming, and punished for it.
Blue Jay shows off a different side of Paulson – looser, more relaxed, and playing opposite Mark Duplass, who seems like he would thoroughly irritate many other Paulson characters. Here, the two are ex-lovebirds, though that’s not immediately clear when they first run into each other at their hometown supermarket. He’s in town cleaning out his mom’s old house; she’s in town visiting her sister. (The town itself is unnamed.) At first, they catch up awkwardly, haltingly. Then, they go out for coffee, and the day continues like so many Before Sunrise riffs that have come, well, before. Talk about how they’re doing great gives way to talk about how their lives could be better.
There’s also a lot of early ’90s teenage nostalgia, which both actors (the majority of the movie’s three-person cast) play beautifully; Paulson makes an admission like “I like Blues Traveler” seem sweet and honest, rather than insane. The black-and-white cinematography lends the whole situation a dreamlike quality – the scenario is far from fantastical, but unlikely in a naturalistic sort of way. Some late-movie contrivances break that spell, starting with a scene where the characters sit around listening to an audio cassette of themselves as teenagers and continuing into a revelation more appropriate for a rough draft of a one-act play (courtesy of Duplass, who wrote the film). The last bit of the movie treats the relationship as a mystery to be solved, rather than an artifact of the past. Director Alex Lehmann may be underestimating how much sense the relationship makes already, especially with Paulson and Duplass in his corner.