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Drunks 1997

Recommended with reservations

Distributed by New Day Films, 190 Route 17M, P.O. Box 1084, Harriman, NY 10926; 888-367-9154 or 845-774-7051
Produced by Peter Cohn, Ilene Landress, Gary Lennon
Directed by Peter Cohn
DVD, color, 86 min.

Sr. High - General Adult
Drama, Film Studies, Theater, Urban Studies

Date Entered: 08/14/2013

Reviewed by Jennifer Dean, Graduate of the CUNY Graduate Center MALS program with thesis on female filmmakers.

An all star cast (including Richard Lewis, Parker Posey, Calista Flockhart, Sam Rockwell, and Dianne Wiest) assemble to bring to the screen an adaptation of Gary Lennon’s play Blackout in the film Drunks. Monologues and a few short scenes of characters coping with alcoholism at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Times Square are interspersed with scenes of the main character Jimmy after he leaves the meeting and falls off the wagon. The narrative is slim in this character driven piece and not much seems to have been done by director/producer Peter Cohen to the original play to translate the material to the screen. The convention of actors addressing the group in an AA meeting was likely very successful in a small or medium sized black box theatre where the audience would have a direct relationship to the characters on stage and be more than an audience, acting almost as members of the AA meeting themselves. There can be a direct response in theatre to the monologues presented that could manifest as more of a dialogue with the audience but in the case of film the material becomes stilted and claustrophobic. The film opens up when it follows Jimmy through the streets of New York City in search of solace (and alcohol) after he leaves the AA meeting. He revealed in his talk to the group that he came to sobriety thanks in part to his wife who suddenly and tragically died of a brain aneurism eight months ago. Overcome by the emotional impact of his revelations Jimmy leaves the safety of the group and takes to the streets.

One poignant scene shows Jimmy trying to have sex with a former flame from the days when he was a practicing addict. She offers herself up to him and he devours her in an attempt to make a connection but in the end she hungers more for a fix than for that connection and only begs him for drugs which he insists are on the way. When it is clear the drugs are not readily available she leaves Jimmy alone, in search of what to her is a more important connection than the human, physical connection he wishes to make with her. Scenes like this that show and don’t tell via exposition, however, are rare in the film.

There are a few lovely performances including by Lisa Gay Hamilton who navigates the layers of tragedy piled onto her circumstances without falling into the traps of overacting or melodrama, and Spalding Gray who manages a monologue (as he always does) like a virtuoso. Perhaps Gray as a monologist and not necessarily an actor is spared some of the artifice that appears in the other monologues.

Faye Dunaway does not fare well in the film as she delivers her address to the group. Several plastic surgery procedures limit her ability to express herself subtly (or at all through facial expressions) – and ironically a scene between her and Calista Flockhart in the bathroom ends with the two of them looking in a mirror assessing their looks. All of the talk of the meeting that should lead to a path of inner peace (or at least the ability to accept the state of sobriety) for these women ends in a discussion about their outward appearance. The score of the film is effective and the urban landscape of New York City in Drunks is interesting (so different from the post-Disneyfication of today’s Times Square).

Drunks would be useful for analyzing the differences in technique between film and theatre and how the different mediums engage an audience – perhaps in conjunction with Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1962), a film also based on a play (Jack Gerber’s play of the same name produced by The Living Theatre) and dealing with issues of addiction. Clarke’s film (I would argue successfully) adapted the medium by adding the film director and cinematographer as characters thus creating an experience that is more than simply a filmed theatre piece.