Film offers intense look at love, relationships |

Film offers intense look at love, relationships

Stewart Oksenhorn
Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson star in Jeff Lipsky's "Flannel Pajamas," showing Saturday and Sunday, March 24-25, at the Wheeler Opera House. (Contributed photo)

The human craving for companionship is one of the strongest impulses we have. Our primal desire to connect with one other person trumps rational considerations, blinds us to logic, makes us shut out the more reasoned advice of others, and obliterates our ability to look toward the future. How else to explain all those badly mismatched couples out there, and a divorce rate in America of something close to 50 percent?Pay close attention to the first scene of “Flannel Pajamas,” Jeff Lipsky’s realistic, insightful, daringly intimate and occasionally punishing portrait of contemporary American romance. In that scene is the seed for everything that will follow.”Flannel Pajamas” opens in a New York City diner. We catch the players midconversation: Stuart (Justin Kirk) and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) have been set up on a blind date. Stuart freely reveals that he lies for a living: as a Broadway advance man, his job is to pitch theater productions to big groups, and to pitch them in a way that will generate ticket sales. If that means exaggerating the truth about the show, or leaving out pertinent parts, so much the better. It lets Stuart practice a little theater of his own. And, he assures Nicole, he’s very, very good at it.

Nicole, for her part, doesn’t hesitate to reveal her own insecurities. Her large family, back in Montana, is eccentric and troubled. Still, she misses them in a way that is probably unhealthy; in New York, she is shy, skittish and overly sensitive.The capper: Both are in therapy. In fact, the therapist they have in common has set them up and is sitting there in the diner with them. Also in the diner, for reasons unclear, are Stuart’s brother Jordan (Jamie Harrold), and Nicole’s best friend Tess (Chelsea Altman). The fact that both take turns on the shrink’s couch, that Jordan is an unstable flake, that Tess is even more seriously duplicitous than Stuart should set off alarms.But Stuart is into his 30s, Nicole maybe a few years younger. Both are lonely: Stuart, for all his verbal gifts, strangely lacks friends, and maintains some distance from his family. Nicole, a child of two alcoholics, is wired for loneliness. They see each other, they click, they are attracted – caution be damned in their moment of bonding. By the time they leave the diner, they are a couple; within a few weeks, Nicole has moved in; soon enough, Stuart has informed Nicole that they will be married.

The relationship unravels as quickly as it was assembled. Nicole wants kids right away; Stuart wants to wait. Stuart resents how much Nicole relies on her family; Nicole resents that Jordan’s antics are occasionally played out in her den. Nicole wants a puppy; Stuart is cruel in the negotiation process over the potential pet.Writer-director Lipsky doesn’t mind making his audience squirm. The decline of the relationship is an all-too-accurate mirror for a lot of people, and the naturalist style of “Flannel Pajamas” brings the camera in tight on Stuart and Nicole, putting their individual flaws and their awkward chemistry as a couple into high definition. The idea could be a brutal reflection of actual life, but Lipsky makes these characters so recognizable and real that we ache for them.And when we flash back to that opening scene, we also get a whiff of human nature. Thinking back on those telltale signals Stuart and Nicole readily, innocently disclose in the diner booth, “Flannel Pajamas” becomes a cautionary tale about romance. Not that any of us is wired to heed that warning.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is”Flannel Pajamas” shows Saturday and Sunday, March 24-25, with an additional matinee screening Saturday at 4:30 p.m., at the Wheeler Opera House.