“What are you wearing?” Easier with Practice shows weary writer Davy Mitchell (Brian Geraghty) receiving a late-night phone call in his motel room. It’s an unexpected introduction to the mysterious “Nicole” (Kathryn Aselton), who likes to seduce guys over the phone. Before long, Davy’s dull book tour of New Mexico has been transformed into an onanistic odyssey that shocks even his brother Sean.
I shudder to think about the prurient comedy that could have resulted from this set-up if Judd Apatow or the American Pie team had got their sticky fingers on it. Fortunately, Davy Rothbart’s GQ article “What Are You Wearing?”, has been adapted by writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez into a low-key but surprisingly affecting drama about loneliness and the yawning gap between romantic expectations and real life.
The opening credits feature a montage of images from the covers of those dime store romantic novels that feature big-shouldered heroes ravishing big-breasted ladies with huge red lips. It turns out that Davy keeps one of these books in the car that he and brother Sean (Kel O’Neill) have been sharing during their extended road trip. A brief reading from this torrid romance suggests that Sean has a rather more earthy approach to relations with the opposite sex than his elder brother does.
The film begins in a bookshop with the earnest, bespectacled Davy giving a reading from his collection of short stories, Things People Do To Each Other. When the brothers check into yet another nondescript motel in Albuquerque, Sean goes out to buy cigarettes and Davy settles in for an evening of channel surfing. Moments later the phone rings and Nicole enters his room. Of course she’s not actually in the room — it just feels like it to the audience and especially the flustered Davy. At first he thinks it’s a mistake or Sean playing a prank. After all, why would an alluring young woman be calling him out of the blue?
In the 10-minute scene that ensues the camera doesn’t move from the figure of Davy sitting on his bed cradling the receiver. Soon she’s telling him what she’s wearing (nothing as it turns out) and encouraging him to lose his inhibitions and engage in the kind of explicit chat that you normally find on premium rate numbers.
It’s early in the story so we don’t know much about Davy, but the way this conversation plays out is more psychologically than sexually revealing. Alvarez isn’t interested in showing us his awkward fumblings. (Frankly, if you want that kind of action you probably should just watch American Pie.) From his expressions and rather stilted responses we gather that 28-year-old Davy doesn’t have much imagination or confidence when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex.
This riveting sequence is pretty much guaranteed to leave audiences shaken, stirred and full of questions about who Nicole is and whether this movie is going to have a nasty sting in the tail. After all, in the horror and thriller genres, getting dragged into a phone conversation with a stranger tends not to be a recipe for long life and happiness. Think of Drew Barrymore’s quiz ordeal in Scream or Colin Farrell’s Phone Booth nightmare and you’ll get my point.
The first half of Easier with Practice plays out like a road movie, as the brothers move through a succession of bookshops, motels, cafes and bars. There’s a comic feel to Davy’s attempts to conceal his ongoing relationship from his sceptical brother, who reminds him “She could be an obese middle-aged woman with a thousand cats.” But overall what Alvarez really captures is a feeling of romantic yearning on Davy’s part, as he tries to get Nicole to open up about herself: “Can’t we talk a little bit?” he pleads during one of their late-night chats.
Having opened his hero up to the possibility of intimacy, Alvarez brings him back down to earth as the book tour ends. Back home in his pokey bachelor apartment festooned with Post-It notes, Davy is just another loser with an unfulfilling temp job. Except now he believes that in Nicole he’s found someone who really gets him and that they might eventually meet up.
Socially awkward and sexually gauche men provide great material for comedy — especially when they fall into the embrace of rapacious women. But this film doesn’t take that approach, though there are some painfully funny moments during Davy’s conversations with Nicole. Geraghty’s skill lies in making Davy sympathetic and believable as he blunders through a meeting with the attractive Samantha (Marguerite Moreau), with whom he’s had some kind of failed tryst. As with the young student who tried to chat him up in a bar during the trip, we see a man who wears his reticence like a badge of honour. He’s disapproving of the way his brother casually cheats on his girlfriend, though you sense there might be some envy, too.
As Davy struggles to reconcile the reality of his relations with women with the fantasy that is Nicole, the film moves towards a climax that is in keeping with what’s gone before, but doesn’t neatly resolve the hero’s problems. To say any more about the plot might spoil what is an emotionally resonant and well-acted drama.
Brian Geraghty, whose geeky look here is reminiscent of the young Harrison Ford, was previously in The Hurt Locker and Jarhead. This is a role that takes him and the audience on an emotional journey, though in many scenes he’s alone — just staring into the abyss. It’s a great performance and one that is beautifully framed by Alvarez and cinematographer David Morrison, who have woven an air of romance around banal locations like parking lots, laundromats and motel rooms. This film was shot in just 20 days using Red One digital cameras but I couldn’t fault the choice of locations, the lighting or the sparing use of music.
Easier with Practice is an impressive debut from Alvarez, which deserves to find an appreciative audience. I just hope that its thoughtful approach to issues of sexual identity and isolation won’t go over the heads of film fans weaned on a diet of stoner dude comedies about idiots with overactive libidos.