“Life of Riley” has its Madison premiere at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall on Friday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. FREE! Not rated, 1:48, two stars out of four.
French director Alain Resnais had a career spanning 50 years (in “Whiplash,” one of the old black-and-white movies that Miles Teller and Paul Reiser watch is one of his). But rather than feel the accumulated weight of his years and his reputation, Resnais’ later films seemed to get weirder, lighter, more playful.
So perhaps it makes sense that Resnais’ final film (he died in March at 91) is a piece of comic piffle like “Life of Riley.” Another meeting of the minds between Resnais and British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, Resnais gleefully blurs the line between movies and theater for his own amusement. Viewers might not be so delighted.
The film is adapted from Ayckbourn’s play, and Resnais takes great pains to tell us that the action is set in York, England before completely jettisoning any sense of place. The actors are all French, all filmed on what are transparently sets, with the actors entering and exiting through curtains. The establishing shots are all watercolor paintings, and have I mentioned that an animatronic mole occasionally pops up to view the action, “Caddyshack”-style?
The action centers around George — literally around him, as we never see him in the film. But we hear from his friends that he’s a bon vivant and generally great guy, so they’re shocked at the news that he’s terminally ill and has only a few months to live. His friends decide to stage a play to take his mind off his troubles, but George sounds like a freewheeling chap, and pretty soon he has all three female characters (including Sabine Azema, Resnais’ longtime partner and collaborator) fighting for the chance to accompany George on what could be his farewell trip.
It’s pretty thin soup, as the actors (all fine, including longtime Resnais favorite Andre Dussolier and newcomer Sandrine Kiberlain) gamely labor through the comic setups. Resnais limits himself to only two fixed shots — a medium-long shot, like you were sitting in the first few rows of a theater, and a disconcerting close-up where the background is just a series of drawn black-and-white lines for some reason.
The movie ends with the cast gathered around George’s casket, and you can help but think Resnais, the unseen director, is throwing a bit of a wake for himself while also poking fun at the idea of doing so. In fact, having fun seems to be Resnais’ entire purpose here, gathering his favorite actors together one last time and doing whatever he fancies. Which is fine, but doesn’t exactly make for riveting cinema.
At one point, two characters argue about the value of theater, with one declaring “I prefer movies.” I’m with him, and despite its elegaic touches, “Life of Riley” isn’t much of one.