Henry Jaglom's 18th feature film, Just 45 Minutes from Broadway, arrives in cinemas three years after his successful stage play of the same name debuted at the Edgemar Theater in Santa Monica. And yet, to refer to this motion picture as a simple adaptation or transposition of the original source material would be doing it a grave injustice. Jaglom and his collaborators - who include most of the original cast, editor Ron Vignone, and cinematographer Hanania Baer - take advantage of the structural capabilities of the cinematic medium to rework the theatrical material in ingenious and brilliant ways that were impossible within the confines of the proscenium. This - combined with the retainment of the play's dramatic developments and incisive, witty dialogue that made the original production so blissful - turn Just 45 Minutes into one of the most immensely satisfying works in the iconoclastic director's oeuvre.
The story involves the Isaacs, a group of theater actors inhabiting a country home in Westchester County, New York. Present are patriarch George "Grisha" Isaacs (Jack Heller), his wife Vivien Cooper Isaacs (Diane Salinger), Vivien's brother Larry Cooper (David Proval), and family houseguest Sally Brooks (Harriet Schock). As the tale opens, Grisha and Vivien's daughter, Panda (Tanna Frederick) arrives from Manhattan on the heels of a painful and messy breakup. Her ex-boyfriend was an emotionally constipated jerk who couldn't deal with her vulnerabilities. Though Panda adores her family, their chosen profession, and the emotionally-liberated lifestyle that it engenders, she also grapples with a tense, troubled relationship with older sister Betsy (Julie Davis) - an icy, controlled businesswoman type who has distanced herself from this family of artists. Betsy turns up for a visit not long after Panda arrives, this time with her fiancé, Jimmy (Judd Nelson) in tow. In the days that follow, Jimmy and Panda find themselves drawn to one another and Jimmy begins to open up emotionally to those around him - to Betsy's horror.
On the surface, the story is relatively straightforward, but beneath this schema, the material itself feels every bit as freewheeling as its characters.Thematically, the writer-director and his cast keep making profound, intuitive connections - between emotional liberation/courage and life itself, between life and acting, between childhood and theater, between theater and romantic nostalgia. The thematic free-association, of course, will come as no surprise to Jaglom's fans - his motion pictures have been making similar leaps for years - but this one stands apart by virtue of its ambition in two respects. The broadest is a structural device: Jaglom opens the story by seamlessly grafting footage from the Edgemar stage production of 45 Minutes into the rest of the narrative, as an explicit manifestation of Panda's outlook. Similarly, in the final half hour, we get constant back-and-forth between the two "realms" - one depicting the Isaacs' daily life in the "real world", and another where the Isaacs "act out" their lives on stage. The message here is apparent: for Panda, theater, family, and emotional courage are so intertwined that despite her initial attempts to keep "everyday life" and "theatrical life" apart, she's ultimately unable to do so - the two spheres eventually merge into one inseparable reality in her mind- and one that Panda cherishes. She's in her element, among her tribe, and adores being there. The structural experimentation that Jaglom uses to bring this off is his boldest since the masterful Venice/Venice, and it's highly effective here.
Narratively, the film also retains the sort of looseness that we associate with Jaglom's best work - he keeps packing in one delightful surprise after another. The most exuberant is a lengthy sequence in mid-film, involving a Jewish sader not found in the original stage production. This enables the director to expand and spin the story far beyond the confines of the original play, and includes delightful comedic appearances by Michael Emil, Simon Jaglom (who does a riotous Al Pacino Scarface evocation), and Sabrina Jaglom. Importantly, this sequence is far from a structural whim - it strategically advances many of the themes explored in the remainder of the picture, particularly the lure of showbusiness life for new entrants, and the emotional radiance/magnetism of showbusiness families.
Just 45 Minutes also distinguishes itself by virtue of its improvisatory style, which feels more subtle, more instinctive than it's ever been before in a Jaglom film: the actors navigate their way through dozens of conflicting and overlapping emotions, which makes the onscreen interchanges electric and vital. The entire cast deserves praise. Nelson stands out by virtue of the difficulty of his role, as an emotional prisoner who only gradually emerges from his shell. He's both subtle and nuanced; it's a quiet, understated turn and particularly demanding for being so, but the actor pulls it off masterfully; this four-barelled performance redefines his career. Davis is also exemplary as Betsy - and there is no way that her acting debut, in the 2001 Amy's Orgasm, could have ever prepared us for the multidimensionality on display here; courtesy of a virtuoso technique, she somehow enables us to concurrently see through the character's supercilious, icewater-veined exterior, while projecting the paralyzing fear of liberation that lies beneath all of Betsy defenses; ergo, a role which could have been both ghastly and grating in lesser hands grows poignant here, and generates a surprising degree of sympathy from the audience. Salinger stands out via the towering strength of her emotion on camera; she delivers a monologue opposite Heller, on the glories of the theater, that's arguably the finest on-camera work she's ever done - it begins on an intense note, then builds and builds; at first, it's impossible to see how she can sustain the energy, but she does, and we're left awestruck with tears in our eyes.
In her fourth of five collaborations with the writer-director, lead actress Frederick commands the production. She's always done her finest work under Jaglom's aegis thanks to a fearlessness that few of her contemporaries could muster, but here her performance operates on a couple of different levels. One is a broad histrionic mode that meshes with the theatrical demeanor of the whole Isaacs family, and this is appropriately startling - it's a testament to Frederick's emotional power that we almost find it difficult to keep our eyes on Panda - the character's immediacy is appropriately that terrifying, that startling, even to those of us comfortable with our own feelings. But Frederick also gives us moments of subtle revelation, in the wordless instances when Panda reacts to the others around her. It's never declared forthright that Panda begins to fall in love with Jimmy; instead, we watch it happening in slow motion, thanks exclusively to the behavioral insights that Frederick gives us. She delivers an extraordinary reaction, for example, where Panda watches Betsy throw herself into Jimmy's arms, and responds with a line of dialogue where her voice breaks, mid-sentence. This is heartbreaking to witness, but only one of dozens of like examples in Frederick's evocation.
Lest this description of Just 45's emotional undercurrents make it sound too earnest, however, one should bear in mind that Jaglom's script is also often wildly funny, and the humor gives the material a buoyancy, an effervescence that makes it highly pleasurable. Especially in the early scenes, Jaglom peppers the Isaacs' dialogue with witty allusions and jokes that lightly satirize the theatrical community. The most inspired of these - a hysterical line about Mike Nichols and drug addiction not found in the stage play, delivered by Harriet Schock, with her impeccable comedic timing - will earn many laughs, especially from audience members in the show business community. Similarly, as brothers-in-law with a playful antagonism between them, Proval and Heller form a sublime comedy team - they're like two old vaudevillian pros, and when one of the other characters asks if they've ever done The Odd Couple together, the inquiry seems entirely merited.
Overall, Just 45 Minutes succeeds triumphantly as a rare work of complex and sophisticated cinematic art. It also does something even more lovely: as one of the most eloquent summations to date of the themes closest to its creator's heart, it will both satisfy Jaglom's many admirers and will serve as the perfect entrée to the director's long and venerable body of work for those new to his craftsmanship. All will find it endlessly fascinating and deeply rewarding. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi