There’s no there there — that’s the problem with Jeff Lipsky’s critically acclaimed new film, Flannel Pajamas, about the vapid lives and petty, narcissistic loves of New York sophisticates Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) and Stewart (Justin Kirk). The film follows them from their first blind date through their wedding and predictable troubles with extended family, money, sex, and the threat of procreation. This is rather worn territory, to which Lipsky contributes nothing more than further evidence of Hollywood’s self-indulgent fascination with inane, self-indulgent characters.
Reasonably articulate and mildly perceptive, Nicole and Stewart establish an immediate intimacy — so immediate that it cannot but seem contrived. Presented without context and exclusively by means of clever verbal exchanges, the characters are never credible; they never make anything beyond a surface impression. Fairly quickly and quite predictably, the energy in their relationship dissipates. She mopes around, clueless, until obvious problems begin to hit her like cosmic epiphanies, while he talks endlessly about his own generosity even as he confesses his jealousy of everyone, including her family and even his dead brother, who has displaced him from the center of the universe.
“Flannel pajamas” figure in an early scene when Stewart asks whether Nicole has any pajamas for him to wear. She opens a drawer and takes out some flannel pajamas, which her father had given her when she was young. Asked whether she ever wore them, she says that she can’t remember. Memories and stories are operative in Stewart’s rather odd, lucrative job constructing fake back-stories for theater productions in order to attract audiences. But the film is unable to make much of the theme of memory or storytelling, or even pajamas for that matter. There are secrets disclosed, skeletons of family abuse and so forth, but it is not clear that much, if anything, is to be made of these, and there is no motive for thinking that the life of these one-dimensional characters could be otherwise than it is.
What is incredible in this film is the absence of any hint — or, at least, none that Nicole or Stewart can discern — of the problems that await them once they get married. The point, of course, is that marriage changes everything, and for the worse. The cause of the problems, however, is that the characters have so little initial awareness of one another; even worse, they have an astonishing paucity of self-knowledge.
At the same time, their patterns of interaction, mostly verbal, reveal a hyper-consciousness, a penchant for trivial self- and group-analysis that overrides the possibility of any genuine experience of emotion or passion. Nicole interrupts her own experience of sexual pleasure to ask Stewart why he went into therapy. Abstracted from their own past, their current surroundings, and void of any determinate hope or aspiration for the future, these ghostlike waifs move back and forth between New York and her family’s Nutcracker-like house in Montana.
The film devolves into interminable, narcissistic self-analysis, but it really has nowhere else to go. The characters are not alive enough to have interesting interior lives or to engage in passionate acts of violence. The closest the film comes to insight is in its depiction of the way differences over the desire for children can infect a marriage. With little discussion, they come to an agreement to wait two years before trying to conceive. The initial concord falls apart fairly quickly, then is sundered even further, as they have debates about money and methods of birth control. In the midst of one disagreement, Stewart agrees to let her get a dog if she’ll switch birth control devices to one that causes him less discomfort.
While the film exhibits the external conflict over sex and procreation, and even over the artificial separation of one from the other, it cannot illumine them. In the world of this film, sex is about pleasure and power, nothing more.
The film does gesture toward an explanation at least of Nicole’s psychic deprivation; the culprit is her religious upbringing. In a conversation with Stewart, who is Jewish, Nicole’s mother, an authoritarian Catholic who tolerated her husband’s abuse of their children, volunteers sneeringly that she believes “every single stereotype about Jews.” In an irony lost on Lipsky, the film proceeds to indulge in a host of sophisticated liberal stereotypes about Catholics.
Lacking the angst of Bergman or the wit of Woody Allen, Lipsky reduces the vagaries of marital love to a business relationship gone awry. There may be material here for a penetrating analysis of what happens to contemporary romance when it is stripped of any larger significance than momentary pleasures and plains. Alas, the film itself seems to think this is all there is, so it cannot shed light on it, only depict it. The characters seem destined to individual and familial misery, but why the rest of us should care is apparently a question the filmmakers never thought worth asking.
— Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.a