From the outset, you think you know what sort of independent movie John Magary’s “The Mend” is going to be. Two brothers, one a straight-arrow, the other a ne’er-do-well rebel type, have been estranged for years, but manage to bond over one crazy weekend in New York City. The rebel learns to be a little responsible and, hey, maybe that stuffy straight arrow learns to loosen his tie and be a little more spontaneous, right? Maybe one of them could be played by Josh Lucas, the blandly handsome actor from the NBC version of “The Firm” and doing voice over ads for Home Depot.
“The Mend” does have many of those elements in place, including Lucas. But it is a bracingly different sort of film, a funny and scabrous look at family dysfunction that lives many loose ends both narrative and visual untied. Magary always wants to show rather than tell, suggest rather than show, and it makes for a film that gets its hooks in more deeply than you might anticipate.
“The Mend” did not play theatrically in Madison, but is available to rent or own on streaming services like iTunes and Amazon.
Lucas is indeed the ne’er-do-well, a web designer named Mat who seems to be living out a Charles Bukowski novel in his head, constantly rude and soused. The opening sequence illustrates both Mat’s character and Magary’s approach to him — we first see him romancing his single-mom girlfriend (Lucy Owen), who then angrily kicks him out of her apartment in the next moment? What happened in between? Like so much else in “The Mend,” we just have to take it on faith.
Mat next just sort of appears at a house party being thrown by his lawyer brother Alan (Stephen Plunkett) and his live-in girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner). For the next half-hour, Magary perfectly captures the ebb and flow of a party, of conversations overlapping, burst of awkward conversation and heated arguments here and there, the energy level rising as a new face enters and then eventually petering out. Amid the din, we get the sense that there’s tension between Alan and Farrah — she’s delighted when he’s caught passing off a James Wolcott quote as his own opinion.
Alan and Farrah leave, ostensibly on a camping trip where Alan is planning to propose, and Mat decides to squat in their apartment, inviting over his old girlfriend and her son because their apartment is infested with bedbugs. But then Alan comes back early from the trip (the proposal did not go well), and the power dynamics in the apartment start shifting back and forth between the two brothers. An off-balance jazzy score with ticklish strings keeps us on edge as the two brothers warily circle each other emotionally.
With the power out and distractions few, Alan and Mat finally learn to be honest about each other and their mutual antipathy towards their late father. But “The Mend” is never sure such honesty is a good thing, and the relationship is constantly lurching towards chaos, with wryly funny lines meant to wound flying around the tiny apartment. The closest the brothers bond is when, on a drunken stroll through Central Park, they come across a film set and start cruelly berating the production assistant they meet. We’ve never met their father, but we sense him coming to life through their taunts, and it’s ugly.
At one point in the film, Farrah berates Alan for always having an immediate, pat opinion of every movie or play they see. I’m going to take her advice and not try to neatly sum up “The Mend,” except to say that it is a gloriously entertaining film that gives some terrific actors plenty to gnaw on. And they get unnervingly close to the bone.