Clearly Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear) has had his share of losses: his father has just died as the movie opens, and as an actor a once promising career has gone nowhere; he hardly makes enough money to pay the bills. Although he cannot quite bring himself to admit it, he is embarrassed by relying on his wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), a psychotherapist, for his small family’s survival. And he probably has visited his father so little during his life because of that very fact (we later discover that his father had refused to attend family events because they were paid for by Kathy, not his son). Sachs reveals all of this in a few seconds when, taking down the garbage after a low-keyed memorial gathering in their father’s Brooklyn brownstone, Brian breaks down into sobs. What’s more, he must face the fact that, as we see in his portrayal of Trigorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull in an off-off Broadway theater, that he is simply not a great actor.
Kathy, as the breadwinner, has lost her youth, and is now losing customers. In short, the Jardines are in financial duress, and are delighted to leave Manhattan by moving into the dead father’s brownstone.
The building also contains a rent-paying dress shop, run by a former Chilean seamstress, Leonor Calvelli (Paulina García). However, the rent she pays is incredibly low given the recent gentrification of the neighborhood. Brian’s father, knowing that her business brought in very little, kept the rent low, and sought out the strong-willed woman as a friend and confident. Leonor’s husband is seemingly on a permanent trip to Angola, where we never discover what he is doing—except as Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri) imaginatively speculates, he is on an endless safari. He too, has lost his father, which he admits at first hurt him, but the fact of which he has now assimilated.
This tiny family of two suffers the loss of income which might help them to survive. And now that there is a new landlord, Leonor sniffs out the future like a lioness determined to protect the only things she has left in her life: her hard work and her love for her talented son.
If the fast-talking Tony (in one wonderful scene he even talks down his acting teacher in a theater exercise) also plays sports and is attracted to a girl, we know that the shy Jake is focused only on Tony and his own art. Sachs says nothing else about the sexual interests, but as we all know of boys at their age, it would come of no surprise if they might also be exploring one another’s bodies. If nothing else, their friendship is, at this moment, at the center of their lives. And when a fellow school mate hints at Jake’s possible homosexuality (“he wears dresses at home,” taunts the boy), Tony slugs him, receiving a beating in return. These little men might have become friends for life—if it weren’t for the insensitivity and class differences of their parents.
Prodded by both his wife and his obviously greedy sister (Talia Balsam) (“What am I getting out of this?” she laments), Brian determines to triple Leonor’s rent, a sum she simply cannot pay. She, in turn, battles him back, refusing to even read his new rental agreement and goading him with stories from his father’s mouth. She even advertises for new help. As film critic Sheila O’Malley writes: “She's terrifying. She's terrified. When she crushes her cigarette out on the sidewalk, you can picture Brian and Kathy's faces underneath her shoe. She is not a villain. She is fighting for her life.”
It is too late, and regret is all any of these figures have left. In the last scene we see the painful isolation, once again, of Jake, now sporting a ponytail, on a visit to an art museum where he is sketching a painting, the traditional way in which artists hone their own craft. Across the way, he suddenly spots Tony with a group of other students viewing the art. For a moment he rises to get a better glimpse, but as Tony moves away with the others, Jake returns to his floor-bound location, focusing on the only thing he now has left, his art.
The terrible feeling at the bottom of our stomachs as we leave the theater is that both boys may have lost, in the severing of their bond, almost everything except their personal imaginative desires. Will they, like Leonor and Brian, similarly be failures in their chosen endeavors? That, we can never know. We can only hope not. Or let me say, we can only believe that they may find the happiness that has so eluded the bigger men and women around them.
The acting in this film is as excellent as the direction, and the music by Dickon Hinchliffe is a delightful counterpoint to the sadness of the film’s subject. This is a movie I might like to own to be able to see it again and again.