Duane: David Schwimmer
Linda: Janeane Garofalo
Anthony: Judah Friedlander
Gina: Susan Lynch
Fred: Dick Cavett
Steve: Steve Schirripa
IFC Films presents a film directed and written by Matt Mulhern. Running time: 84 min. Rated R (for language).
It seems the alcoholic’s story brings out the best dramatic product from the most seemingly unlikely performers. There have been several wonderful films made on the subject all revolving around stunning performances by actors who were best known for their comedic output prior to their alcoholic turns. Michael Keaton beat the horrific road to recovery in the movie “Clean and Sober”; and Meg Ryan shed her romantic image to portray a wife that can’t cope with her drinking problem and her family in “When a Man Loves a Woman.” In “Duane Hopwood” former “Friends” star David Schwimmer gets his shot at dramatic legitimacy and delivers perhaps the most satisfyingly complete portrayal of a drunk this critic has ever seen.
Duane is divorced from his wife Linda (Janeane Garofalo, “Stay”); although an opening montage that plays under the credits shows the couple sharing happy moments together and with their two daughters. But Duane’s drinking was obviously a problem and most likely the reason for their divorce. He is a bouncer at an Atlantic City casino, which seems to be the one area of his life his drinking has not severely affected. That doesn’t mean he likes his job, it just seems to be his one line.
One evening Duane is pulled over for drunk driving. The state trooper is a friend of Duane’s and is willing to let it slide if Duane cooperates. That is until he discovers that Duane was taking this 3 a.m. drunken joy ride with one of his daughters asleep in the back seat. “Duane, this changes things,” his friend says to him, and it seems never a truer statement had even been spoken to Duane in his life.
As if estrangement from his family hadn’t been much of an uprooting experience, Duane’s life is truly turned on its head as not only does his problem unexpectedly finally threaten his work situation when he finds himself without a license to drive in the middle of November (riding a bike to work on the New Jersey coast in the midst of winter is a bit conspicuous), but his wife’s lawyer urges her to have Duane’s visitation rights removed.
Now, this all sounds severely depressing, and there are moments in the film where the emotions involved become overwhelming, but the greatest element of this movie is its lighthearted approach to life in general. For every heavy heartbeat in this film there are pathetic comic figure and is wonderfully cast as this very likeable pity case. He has the ability to find the everyday comedy in moments where the character is at his most vulnerable, but he never seems to be playing for the comedy. His sad attempts to bed a bartender friend (Susan Lynch, “Casa de los babys”) who helps him home when it is raining one day are a good case in point.
It is also good to see that Duane and Linda have not forgotten how they once felt about each other. Despite their divorce and the horrific notion of taking Duane’s daughters away from him, they still seem to very much like one another. Duane’s alcoholism isn’t something that just happened to him and turned him into a villain to those who once loved him. The alcoholism is the thing that has taken hold of both (all) of their lives, and they understand it wasn’t something Duane did to them on purpose. Garofalo does a good job conveying that although Linda does not want to take his daughters away from him, it is something she feels she must do for their own and even Duane’s own good.
Writer and director Matt Mulhern is quite gifted in the way he is able to multi-layer all of his character’s actions and emotions. Drawing out the comedy in most of his slice-of-life situations is an ingenious way to make the material easily accessible and even highlights the multi-layered aspect of his characters when the audience realizes they are laughing at a man’s tragedy.
Duane does not have to carry every burden. Anthony (Judah Friedlander, “Date Movie”) is a janitor at the casino who has aspirations of becoming a stand up comedian. At first he comes across as a loser, one of those guys that every place of employment seems to have, a guy who is always spouting theories about everything and everyone just humors to his face but laughs at behind his back. But after Duane humors Anthony into his house as a “roommate” we find that he is the ever understanding friend that anyone needs in order to get through hardships. Anthony’s frankness becomes an asset Duane can count on to call him out when he is in the wrong and the next moment still be there to support him.
Duane also has two neighbors that are the dictionary definition of “characters.” Steve (Steve Schirripa, “Must Love Dogs”) never says a word, yet gives the impression that he wants smack someone out of their ignorance at any moment but is too scared of disrupting some fragile balance. Former talk show host Dick Cavett plays Steve’s roommate Fred. Fred is one of those people who always means well yet can’t help but say too much in any given situation.
“Duane Hopwood” is a tough movie in that by its end, it has put its audience through the emotional wringer, but the journey itself is a smooth ride with welcome friends and good times to be had. It certainly doesn’t present alcoholism as a walk in the park, but it present life as a challenge that can either be crashed into headlong or drunk up and cherished. It is a choice we have all made and regretted at times, but we have no choice in the matter of living itself, only how.