Mark Blane’s semi-autobiographical New York fantasia Cubby toured film festivals this summer, playing at events like OutFest in LA, Frameline in San Francisco, New York’s NewFest and Reeling Film Festival in Chicago, among others. It’s a film that seems tailor-made for festivals — quirky, strange, shot on 16mm film, a bit clunky, with subject matter that was never going to be a box office smash. It’s in theaters in LA and New York now, and it hits VOD 11/12.
The film is about a 20-something artist named Mark (played by Blane), who moves to New York on a whim. He’s convinced his mother (a delightful Patricia Richardson) that he got a job at an art gallery, and she inexplicably agrees to drive him across the country and drops him off, with one box, on a random street corner. She clearly loves her son, who has an anxiety disorder of some sort (judging by the Klonopin he keeps popping), so right away I was a bit lost as to why she would just hop back in the car and go instead of making sure he got settled. There are two other boxes! But instead of carrying them for him, she just loads them back in the car and takes them back to Indiana.
Turns out, Mark doesn’t have a job lined up, nor does he have a room. He lucks into both, however, when he calls someone he knew from college named Noah (John Duff). Noah now goes by Noah-Gregg (the two g’s are important because they represent “yin and yang… balance!”), and they live in a “collective,” which here means lots of roommates, group meals, and yoga. Outside the apartment is a notice board, where Mark finds an advertisement for a babysitting gig, watching a six year old.
The rest of the film is a bit of a freewheeling descent into insanity and inanity, as Mark decides to stop taking his pills and gives in to all of his worst, quirkiest instincts. He stops paying rent. He stops showing up to work on time. And, oh yeah, he keeps hallucinating about a leather-clad man (whom he calls Leather-Man, played by Christian Patrick), who follows him around dispensing advice.
Cubby is a bit of a frustrating watch, though it has a lot of things going for it. It looks great, for one; the 16mm film gives the movie a dreamlike, timeless atmosphere, the timelessness exacerbated by the fact Mark uses a flip-phone and doesn’t own a computer. There are also numerous little animated flourishes, as though Mark’s drawings come to life around him, that make the film interesting to watch even as what’s happening is inscrutably quirky. Blane’s performance is refreshingly un-self conscious, too. He wrote the script and co-directed the film (with Ben Mankoff), but his (fictionalized) Mark is bracing, unlikeable, self-sabotaging.
Ultimately, though, the film treats Mark’s relentless zaniness as an enjoyable character trait, one that endears him to the six year old he babysits, even as it frustrates the parents he works for, instead of the sign of spiraling mania that it is. I don’t mind unlikeable characters, but the dialogue here is far too twee for its own good. It’s cute for the first half hour or so, but it makes the film feel much longer than its 83 minute runtime. Choice lines include his excuse for being an hour late to pick up his charge from school (“I met a whale in the Hudson, and he was talkin’ my ear off.”) as well as his desperate plea to a friend who steps in at just the right moment (“Earth stinks! Let’s move to Pluto!”). Sometimes, instead of taking the stairs, he climbs sideways over the handrails. Why? Because it’s an indie movie!
By the time Mark decides to grow up, the conclusion feels unfortunately thin and un-earned. I will, however, be interested to see what Mark Blane does in the future, once he gets out of his own way.
By Eric Langberg
Cubby is currently playing at Laemmle Glendale, Los Angeles and Cinema Village, New York.