Editor’s Note: If I Were You opens in limited release on March 15th, and is now available on VOD
It’s always a gamble, playing suicide for comic effect as an introduction to a narrative. In the hands of a master filmmaker like Hal Ashby with Harold and Maude, it can work wonders, setting a blackly comic atmosphere to accurately map the tonal trajectory to come. If I Were You is writer/director’s Joan Carr-Wiggin’s third film, and her attempt to do the same is that of a far less certain filmmaker. There’s an unease—and not the sort intended—to this opening as the married Madelyn secretly follows home the younger woman with whom her husband has been cheating and, aghast, has to prevent her from killing herself. It’s a sequence played largely for laughs—some admittedly effective, some considerably less so—in its strangely farcical presentation, the sex comedy sensibility scarcely preparing us for the deeper drama to follow.
Carr-Wiggin’s conceit is to have the women—after Madelyn reveals that she is being cheated on—defer control of each other’s lives, establishing a strange power play that touches on ideas of empowerment and self-determination, and lays the foundations for a dramatically-charged comedy of errors.
Drama is an apt word for If I Were You, not as a generic identity, but rather in its theatrical sense: the film, as it unfolds, becomes embroiled in a staging of Shakespeare, using the central themes of power at the heart of King Lear by proxy to explore the intimate network of relationships these characters enact. Madelyn discovers her younger counterpart in the throes of depression, coaxing her away from self-harm without revealing her own identity, and clandestinely offering the ingénue some self-serving advice. Carr-Wiggin’s conceit is to have the women—after Madelyn reveals that she is being cheated on—defer control of each other’s lives, establishing a strange power play that touches on ideas of empowerment and self-determination, and lays the foundations for a dramatically-charged comedy of errors.
Carr-Wiggin does fine work in the construction of her respective moments of comedy and drama; what’s more important, and largely absent here, is the ability to tie those together. Never does the film manage to strike a tonal balance, to marry the disparate material together in one contiguous narrative. The resultant dissonance forges a film very much of two halves, one a dark domestic drama, the other a farcical sex comedy. Largely successful—though not without major issues—in their own right, each of these story strands suggests a better film waiting to be made if only Carr-Wiggin can decide between them, which alas she never does. Their differences are only emphasised by the eccentricities of the score, Paolo Buonvino’s overwrought compositions not just overselling the comedy and undermining the drama, but playing both to deleterious—and often almost deafening—excess.
With a weaker actor, the character and film both would have been lost; in Harden, they rise above their limitation, transcend their drawbacks, and work where otherwise they would most certainly have failed.
Tear the film in opposite directions though it might, what this tonal imbalance can’t do is offset the strength of Marcia Gay Harden’s mercurial performance. Giving herself equally to the comic and dramatic demands of this character, she rises to the challenge with aplomb and surmounts the plentiful pratfalls of the script. In her able hands, Madelyn is precisely the immovable anchor the film requires to save it from the crashing waves of tonal discord. Every laugh the movie lands is hers, every moment of genuine emotion born of her work, every instance of empathy forged from the reality of her portrayal. With a weaker actor, the character and film both would have been lost; in Harden, they rise above their limitation, transcend their drawbacks, and work where otherwise they would most certainly have failed.
Rescued by its miraculous casting, the film emerges from the messy minefield of an ill-judged script largely intact, if heavily scathed. Its ending, entirely endemic to such scattershot plotting, is evidence aplenty of just how strong Harden’s work is: capable of keeping things together even through a dramatic “resolution” of patent absurdity, hers in an immense performance indeed. If I Were You is a deeply troubled work, but it has its own inherent heights too, be they in Carr-Wiggin’s admirable aptness for affecting drama or her impressive ability to connect her characters’ struggles to wider real-world issues. Strangely, she seems to find in Harden just what her heroines find in each other: a guiding hand, capable of forging the way forward that she, alone, cannot.
[notification type=”star”]60/100 ~ OKAY. Rescued by its miraculous casting, If I Were You emerges from the messy minefield of an ill-judged script largely intact, if heavily scathed.[/notification]