Malaise strikes Manhattan…or rather it just sort of lurches into Manhattan

The New Twenty

on March 20, 2009 by John P. McCarthy

Director and co-writer Chris Mason Johnson makes an impressive feature debut with this ensemble dramedy about five college friends mooning and moping around lower Manhattan seven years after graduation. Dreaded premise notwithstanding, The New Twenty is smart and stylish enough to warrant a look. Lacing timeless group dynamics with current concerns, Johnson straddles the line between glossy fluff and serious generational inquiry. That won’t ensure the movie’s theatrical run amounts to anything more than a blip, but it should be good enough to earn Johnson more helming work.

The title makes the film sound shallower than it turns out to be. “Existential malaise courtesy of late capitalism,” is how heroin addict Felix (Thomas Sadoski) glibly sums up his state of mind in the year 2006. On the verge of turning thirty, he’s pining over Julie and is, otherwise, despondently aimless. Julie (Nicole Bilderback) is engaged to marry fellow investment banker Andrew (Ryan Locke). Meanwhile, their portly pal Ben (Colin Fickes)—a bright, movie-loving linguist who’s halfway out of the closet—is groping for any kind of human connection. Julie’s brother, Tony (Andrew Weil Lin), is the fifth strand in this tangled web. His quest for fulfillment involves picking up an HIV positive academic in the steam room at the sports club the gang frequents.

The plot advances courtesy of a marketing company Andrew launches with backing from Louie (Terry Serpico), a vulgar venture capitalist he meets on the squash courts at said gym. Ignoring the adage against mixing business and friendship, Andrew wants to hire Tony. Felix starts a virtually wordless, purely sexual relationship with a fetching redhead, and Ben, when not begging Andrew for a job or trolling the Net for companionship, sends DVDs to a soldier in Iraq. Which relationships will survive this collision between St. Elmo’s Fire and August, 2008’s similarly low-budgeted flick starring Josh Hartnett as a pre-bubble Internet entrepreneur in New York? After an hour of set-up, viewers will grow a tad antsy for answers, which are provided during Andrew’s bachelor party.

Scrambling career anxiety, romantic longing, friendship bonds and generalized ennui wouldn’t result in a satisfying dish if these weren’t intelligent, attractive and well-limned characters. Along with the usual stimuli of money, booze and drugs, Johnson depicts sex with a metropolitan viscosity that allows gays and straights to intermingle with a certain degree of comfort—the believability of this is in the eye of the beholder. No one ever seems to be hurting for cash and, aside from Louie’s master-of-the-universe homophobia, sexual preferences and any tension surrounding sexual identity are treated in enlightened fashion. The theme of cyber-fueled isolation in contemporary society is incorporated less deeply but more seamlessly, mainly through the character of Ben, whose cyber-chatting and attempts at social networking are limited to his laptop, without any sign of a handheld device.

In addition to fine acting, The New Twenty benefits from David Tumblety’s excellent cinematography. He uses color to expressive advantage and turns routine skyline footage (not another shot of a rooftop water tower!) into a vibrant cityscape. Ballads and incidental music add another pleasant layer without taking attention away from the characters. Johnson and co-writer Ishmael Chawla (his fellow Amherst College grad, as is producer Aina Abiodun) shine in a concise barroom scene during which Ben drunkenly holds forth on the nature of human suffering to an older gentleman (Larry Pine in a superb cameo), who sympathizes before gallantly asking, “Now, would you like a blow job from an old cowboy?”

The flamboyant flashes and pretentious shadings in their script don’t rub you the wrong way because even in the film’s most earnest moments, there’s a sense they’re exercising restraint. Felix— The New Twenty ’s resident philosopher—observes, “Enthusiasm requires courage.” This is one way of saluting what Chris Mason Johnson and company have accomplished. It’s too soon to say whether Johnson the director is more “f--- buddy or soul mate” (as Tony asks roommate Felix about his squeeze), but there’s a strong chance we’ll get the opportunity to find out. Movies are arguably the only place where you can hope to encounter someone who qualifies as both.

Distributor: Wolfe Releasing
Cast: Colin Fickes, Nicole Bilderback, Thomas Sadoski, Ryan Locke, Andrew Wei Lin, Terry Serpico, Bill Sage, Cordelia Reynolds, Karen Olivo and Larry Pine
Director: Chris Mason Johnson
Screenwriters: Chris Mason Johnson and Ishmael Chawla
Producer: Aina Abiodun and Chris Mason Johnson
Genre: Drama/Comedy/Romance
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 92 min
Release date: March 20 NY

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