Update: Check out my interview with screenwriter Mike O’Malley.
A group of couples play games on a sunny green lawn. Then they talk about the games. Then they play more games. Then they fill out forms. Not tax forms or business forms, but forms more along the lines of The Newlywed Game. “What do you like most about your partner?” “What do you like least about your partner?” Then they talk about the answers they wrote. Then they go back to a dormitory and sleep in separate rooms, reflecting on the games and all they have learned. Is it a motivational weekend? A Human Resources exercise? Some sort of EST-inspired cult? No. It is what is known as a Catholic “Engagement Encounter”, otherwise referred to as “pre-cana”, a requirement for any couple that wants to get married in the Catholic church. It’s not meant to be fire-and-brimstone (it is not, for example, like the terrifying retreat James Joyce describes in Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man), it is supposed to be enlightening, and help couples to feel closer, more together in the choice they are about to make. If you want to walk down the aisle in a Catholic church, then pre-cana is what you must do.
A movie has not yet been made about a pre-cana retreat, despite the fact that the situation is ripe for exploration, humor, and conflict. A bunch of couples holed up at a retreat center working on their relationships? In the midst of the stress of planning a wedding? Perfect!
I should say: “A movie has not yet been made about a pre-cana retreat” until now. Peter Askin’s Certainty, with a script by Mike O’Malley, has arrived. The issues that come up in Certainty are issues rarely confronted in today’s cinema, and it makes watching Certainty an almost breathtaking experience. I kept waiting for the movie to cop out, to take pot shots, to go the cynical route. This is only because I have been well trained by the current crop of Hollywood movies that deal with young people’s romantic relationships, where stereotypes reign, where the women are high-maintenance bitches, and the men are doofus man-boys, and, at least in Judd Apatow’s world, men and women don’t even really LIKE each other all that much. Well, that is not the world I live in, and it is not the world of Certainty. Because of its courage in its convictions, because it so understands the story that it wants to tell, Certainty never falters in its trajectory, and each scene adds on to the one before it, until by the end we actually feel like we have gotten to know all of these people. On their terms.
Certainty‘s script is complex. The events seem to unfold with their own logic, their own structure, and we in the audience have to figure it out, catch up, and – best of all – submit. I love a movie that makes me submit to it. This is not always a good quality, when a director wants to harass me as an audience member, through “Gotcha” manipulation, or withholding information to make the movie seem smarter than it is. But there’s another kind of submission. It’s the kind of submission I yearn for as an audience member, and so rarely find. It is when my expectations of something are dashed, when a movie says to me, gently, “No, no, I know you expect it to go this way, but that’s not what we’re doing here. Just sit back, listen, and see where we want to go.” The feeling of submission is one of the most pleasing aspects of Certainty. You are in good hands. Peter Askin guides the story, the script goes where it needs to go, and the rewards are enormous for the audience.
Deb (Adelaide Clemens) and Dom (Tom Lipinski) are a young engaged couple on their way to pre-cana. There is a nice energy between the two (both of them give wonderful performances), a kindness and humor that makes you like them immediately. In a more stereotypical (ie: lazy) film, she would be presented as a humorless managerial bitch, with her wedding checklist, and he would be a complete moron. In that stereotypical (ie: lazy) movie, the plot would involve Dom, the man-boy, having to grow up and learn responsibility, and Deb, the humorless type-A chick, would learn to soften up and relax. Well, forgive me, Hollywood directors and writers, we have already seen that movie so why do you keep making it?
Certainty doesn’t once tip over into what we expect, and that is its greatest strength. Deb and Dom, at first, treat pre-cana with a little bit of amusement (as all the couples there seem to), but they do the exercises, they are obedient to what is required of them.
They think they know each other.
Father Heery (played by the marvelous Giancarlo Esposito) runs the pre-cana, and the couples gather in the church to listen to him talk. He asks the group (there are about 10 couples there all together) how many of them have said “I love you” in their lives to someone other than the person they are engaged to? Many of them raise their hands. Father Heery says that when he first started doing pre-cana, years ago, almost no one raised their hands. But people are getting married later now, there is more experience that couples bring to a marriage in the current generation, so how can you know, if you’ve said it before, that you mean it this time? Marriage is an important step, but as we all know, so many of them end in divorce.
This all may seem heavy-handed, but not the way Askin films it, and not the way Mike writes it. A camera slowly pans over the couples, the music is light and sweet, and we see a variety of expressions on all of the faces: open and available, scornful and closed, or just plain confused. Father Heery starts them off on their first exercise, where each couple has to write down on a piece of paper what they love most about their partner. Then they have to share it with their partner. We see all of their interactions, which is a great opportunity for humor.
One guy says to his fiance, “You’re a really great lay”, and he actually means it, he is not being a douche, this is really the nicest thing he has to say about her. She looks like he slapped her. They’re in a church. That’s what you say? “What?” she says to him, devastated.
One guy looks at his fiance, who is furiously typing on her blackberry, and says, tentatively, “I love how you are devoted to your work.” Startled, she looks at him and says, “Oh, we’re actually doing this?”
One guy says to his partner, “You’re really good at handling clutter.” She looks hurt. He sees the look on her face and tries to make it better, “You’re a good cook. You make yummy food.” This makes the situation worse.
All of the actors are wonderful (and I’m not just saying that because I know a lot of them!), and the script vibrates with humanity and comedy. These people all seem so real. It’s awkward, having to “acknowledge” your partner, especially when people are usually so mired in the everyday that they can barely see one another, let alone remember what it is they love about them. The scene, while very funny, has a rawness to it that sets up, in the audience, where we are going to go.
Through the pre-cana, we flash back in time to earlier stages in Deb and Dom’s relationship. The flashback structure works beautifully, because through them we get to know everyone in Deb and Dom’s lives, their parents, their friends and family, and we start to see the world they come from, who they are. But we always go back to the pre-cana. It is the home plate of the movie, the overarching structure. It’s complex, and a difficult structure to maintain, but Certainty doesn’t lose its way, and we always know where we are in time and space.
Dom’s mother (Valerie Harper, who gives a terrific performance) is Catholic (in an Irish Boston sort of way – very specific, and she nails it), and so happy that her son Dom is marrying Deb, whom she obviously loves. Dom’s sister Melissa (Tammy Blanchard) is married to Roddy (Bobby Moynihan), and they seem mismatched (he’s a shlubby intense little guy, and she sashays around at the Christmas party in a slinky red dress) until we realize that she lost about 100 pounds a couple years ago, and now wants to be an actress. She has had a transformation. Roddy doesn’t know what to do with this. It has caused tension in the relationship. Melissa has a lot of pain about having been fat most of her life, and the best thing she can say about Roddy is, “He loved me when I was ugly.” Now she gets to be pretty, now she gets to be the star of her acting class, and Roddy feels left behind. He IS left behind. Both actors are simply phenomenal in their roles. Roddy and Melissa are both so happy that Dom is taking the plunge, everyone loves Deb, and, as Roddy says, “Best thing I ever did was join this family.”
Deb’s parents are a bit less conventional than Dom’s. Her father (played by Loudon Wainwright) is part of a barbershop quartet, it is all that he cares about, and he strolls around with a ukelele engineering spontaneous sing-alongs. Deb reveals to Melissa that the first time she knew Dom was “the one” was the first time she brought him home to meet her parents, and her father roped him into singing with the quartet in the kitchen, teaching him the bass line. Dom was embarrassed, didn’t know how to sing, but went along with it because he was meeting his girl’s parents, and this is what you do when you meet your girl’s parents. Deb, looking on, realizes that Dom is a good person, a kind person, he’s the kind of guy you can trust.
Dom’s best friend Kevin (Will Rogers) is a singer/songwriter who is stuck in a rut and can’t seem to get his act together. He’s a stoner with self-esteem problems and a world of pain. He was in love with a girl named Betsy (Kristen Connolly) in college, and the fact that it didn’t work out with Betsy has impacted his whole life. It was 10 years ago, and he can’t recover. At Dom’s mother’s Christmas party, he brings a blonde bartender as his date. She says to him fondly at one point, “I never liked drugs before I met you.” Out of the blue, Betsy has contacted Dom. She’s just gotten divorced. She’d love to see him and catch up. This new development sends Kevin into a tailspin, not to mention the fact that his best friend is getting married and seems to be entering a world of grown-up concerns and responsibilities, and he feels left behind. There is conflict between Dom and Kevin. Kevin refers to Deb as “fuckable”, and so she’ll make a great wife, and Dom hits the roof. Kevin is in a state of arrested development. Will Rogers (no, not the cowboy star, but a young talented actor) is incredible in his role, heartbreaking, annoying, messed up, and with an openness that makes you worried for him. Life has hurt Kevin. He is, in some respects, broken. Everyone can sense it and no one knows what to do. Will Betsy re-entering his life be a good thing, or yet another reminder to Kevin that the world and all its joys is closed to him? In what could be a cliched role, the best friend resentful of his friend moving on, Will Rogers takes his moment to create a young man cynical before his time, perhaps damaged irreparably, but when Betsy re-enters the scene, he starts to think that maybe he can actually change his life. Maybe … it wasn’t right in college with Betsy, but now it would be? Maybe … he can actually be happy? It’s a very emotional and moving performance.
These are a lot of balls to keep in the air.
Certainty has a script so strong that it can TAKE all of these well-drawn, complex characters, and their interwoven relationships. We have Roddy and Melissa’s marriage problems, his growing concern that she is cheating on him with her acting teacher, his shame about his own weight when it is now compared to his suddenly-skinny wife. Then there is Dom’s intersection with all of this, because Melissa is his sister, and he loves her, and he loves Roddy too, and he doesn’t want her to make a stupid mistake just because she’s pretty now. But when he stops by her acting class and witnesses her doing a monologue, and knocking it out of the park, he’s proud and amazed. He is watching his sister transform, become the confident person that she always should have been. Certainty doesn’t judge Melissa. It has kindness towards her. She’s on her own journey, too. We all mess up in life, and sometimes we are selfish. You also can’t protect your family members from making mistakes. You have to let them go.
Dom is a fixer. We see that at the pre-cana. When Deb, during the exercises, shares with him her dissatisfaction with her work, that she wants to do something more with her life than “marketing”, he immediately swoops in to reassure, cajole, prop her up. She says he doesn’t need to fix it, he just needs to listen. Dom says, “You know, there was once a time when a man could help his girl, and it was called ‘loving’ not ‘fixing’.” This is a classic Mike O’Malley line, insightful, thoughtful, and precise.
Religion is an important theme in Certainty, perhaps the most important, but it’s handled in a sensitive artful way, and is the springboard for all kinds of other discussions. Dom’s mother wants him to come to midnight mass on Christmas Eve with the family. He resists. We learn later that he has all kinds of feelings about the Catholic Church due to his father’s death when he was a kid, and how a priest told him that it would be a “cross to bear”. He found no comfort in the church, and his mother didn’t help matters by telling him it was a good thing, his father was in Heaven now, and it was okay. No, it’s not okay. His dad is dead. He has had no use for the Catholic Church ever since. But it’s important to his mother, so he goes along with the pre-cana, and he does eventually come to midnight mass, joining Deb in the pew, and we get a beautiful shot of Valerie Harper, seeing him arrive, and having a private moment to herself, of happiness and gratitude. It brought tears to my eyes. This is a family I recognize. This is a family that has rarely been shown in American cinema. Religion in Hollywood is either treated with contempt, or not mentioned at all, because it’s just easier that way. Movies that deal seriously with religion are often either heavy-handed or full of proselytizing, or they take the view that “isn’t all of this rather stupid”? Which is certainly not how the majority of people in this country view their own religions. Then there are movies like Tender Mercies, which is certainly not a story primarily of religion, but the religion in the film is a living one, handled upfront and without judgment, without contempt. It’s still radical to see that movie today, because it walks on ground movies don’t often cover. The religion belongs in that movie, because it belongs to the characters presented. It wouldn’t be an honest portrayal without it.
The controversies of the Catholic Church in recent years are well-documented. It is refreshing to see a movie that treats the Catholic religion with respect, humor, and only one or two pedophile jokes. Because for the majority of Catholics, the controversies have been horrifying, deeply upsetting, most of all to the good priests who have been out in their communities, doing their thing with honor for years. What is radical about Certainty, and may be confrontational to those who have a kneejerk contempt for organized religion, is that the faith itself isn’t questioned, because those who have faith don’t question it. But within the faith, there are issues and questions and controversies, not to mention a generation gap, between older-school Catholics (like Dom’s mother) and the younger generation. Dom’s mother is of the generation that straddled Vatican II, and it’s a very specific group (a group I know well – they are all my aunts and uncles). The modernization of the church through Vatican II rocked many many boats, and rocked many families. But people adjusted. For the children of that generation, the rituals were adhered to, the Sacraments followed, but the services were no longer in Latin, and the Church had come out of its cocoon. This is the generation that saw the first Roman Catholic to be President (so far). It was a revolution. Then came the sexual revolution, and the cultural revolution, and many parents are now faced with kids who live entirely in a secular world, and the Church has no place in their lives. Dom’s mother is worried about this, which is why she makes a fuss about everyone going to midnight mass (not to mention the fact that the mass is being said in honor of her dead husband).
As I said, religion is dealt with straightforwardly in Certainty and eventually becomes a point of conflict between Deb and Dom. Deb, on her own, as she has been going through her engagement, found herself drawn to church again and, during the pre-cana retreat, reveals to Dom that she has been going to mass every day. Dom is dumbfounded. Also a little hurt that she hasn’t told him. What does this mean? He thought they were on the same page in terms of their feelings about religion, but now she has revealed a drive and a purpose in her towards Catholicism that he not only doesn’t understand, but resists. During a midnight fight at the pre-cana retreat, when all kinds of truths and resentments are revealed, Father Heery, who obviously has overheard the argument, breaks in suddenly to their private conversation with, “How are we doing here?” and Dom explodes, “Fucking phenomenal, Father”, which gets a thunderclap of laughter from the audience. Father Heery then goes into counselor mode, and talks with Dom about his faith, and what it means to him. Dom holds nothing back, saying, “Forgive me, Father, but you guys have been fucking up my shit for a long time.” Deb is stunned, trying to shush Dom, but Father Heery handles it with aplomb. He says quietly, “Okay, Dom…. How have we fucked up your shit?”
The Catholic priests I grew up with were men who had a religious calling but who also were living in the present-day world. They came over to parties at our house, they were part of the community, and I considered one a friend, and would have weekly appointments with him at the rectory to talk, once I got to college. I found his perspective comforting. He was funny, he knew the struggles of young people, he was a friend to me. It may be jarring to see a Father Heery type to those who have only preconceived notions about Catholic priests, but maybe it’s good to be jarred. It’s never smart to paint an entire group with one brush. Giancarlo Esposito brings just the right blend of holiness and profanity to his portrayal, a man who knows that pre-cana can be confronting, and that half of the couples sitting in those pews in front of him won’t make it. He’s no dummy. He does not preach so much as advise. He can take what Dom throws at him, his faith is strong enough. It’s a very funny and human performance, and a wonderful antidote to the way Catholics have been portrayed so often.
Adelaide Clemens and Tom Lipinski are wonderful in their roles, bringing out the sweetness of new love, and then, when the time comes, the devastation of being betrayed. The problems they have are not standard-issue in terms of Hollywood, but they are standard-issue for many of the young people about to get married in our country today. It’s just that it’s never really been portrayed before. The argument about faith spills into other areas of their lives together. Does he have a crush on that woman at work? He was her Secret Santa and he gave her BATH OILS. Who does that??? Dom wants to know why she still wears a necklace from her old boyfriend. But underneath these arguments is the real subtext: are we ready to submit to this marriage thing, an institution bigger than us? What does it MEAN? Deb does not want to submit to the daily round of life without a sense that there may be something more, something deeper and more divine that she can tap into. Whether that is about changing careers or accepting God into her life, Deb wants to know that Dom has those same dreams and desires. This is deep stuff.
Mike is a philosophical writer, while also being hilarious. He is interested in ideas. He is interested in generation gaps, and the differences between men and women (some of his funniest stuff comes out of his male-female storylines). He doesn’t go at it from the typical route which seems so in vogue now, where writers appear to have lost sight of the fact that men and women are actually supposed to like each other a little bit, right? Mike treats Deb and Dom with respect. They are not rolling their eyes about one another behind each other’s backs, they are not interested in diminishing the other. They both WANT to get married, they both WANT it to work. But once the cracks start showing, they have no idea how to stop it. Mike’s facility with language is unparalleled, and his knowledge of where the joke is is something that should be studied. Because he gets it.
Bobby Moynihan, as the shlub Roddy, is riveting, no other word for it. Mike O’Malley’s dialogue is deceptively simple (ask any actor who has tried to make it work). It seems easy and conversational, but as you speak the words out loud, you realize how much of yourself is needed to inhabit these words. Mike’s dialogue demands full submersion (it’s one of the trickiest and best things about it). A casual actor, thinking he’s just doing regular-guy convo like any other dumb movie, will find himself tripped up in no time by Mike’s words. And through Roddy’s unlikely character, Mike gives the philosophical subtext of the entire story. Roddy is having a bad night. His stuff was stolen and he has been trying to get in contact with his wife, via pay phones, all night, so he can meet up with her after acting class and catch a ride home. But her phone is off. He doesn’t know what to do. He lets himself into Dom’s apartment. Dom is not there because he is on the pre-cana retreat, but Kevin – and his college sweetheart Betsy – are there, drinking wine, and catching up (to say the least). Roddy’s intrusion is entirely unwelcome, but they let him hang out with them. Roddy, who must know that his wife is fooling around, drinks all the wine and starts pontificating at Betsy and Kevin about marriage and divorce. This is a sensitive topic to Betsy, who just got divorced and is feeling bad about it. But Roddy is on a roll. He gulps down wine. He demands of Betsy and Kevin, “Know why my marriage works?” Betsy says dryly, “I’m becoming more and more intrigued.”
Roddy says, “I am blind to the alternative. See, it’s way too easy nowadays to leave somebody. Friends of friends, and families, and everyone everywhere–Everybody’s way too understanding of other people’s reasons to leave.” Kevin, who is already annoyed that Roddy has interrupted the reunion with the love of his life, interrupts and says, “You can’t judge other people’s–” and Roddy steam rolls over him in a magnificent monologue, Mike O’Malley at his very best.
Sure you can. You do. We all do. Most of us just don’t do it out loud when the person’s in the room. We need a good old dosage of out-loud, full frontal condemnation in today’s world. It works. Take my buddy Fraitzel from UMass. He got married a while ago. I went. Listened to the priest give the homily about how all the guests were witnesses to the wedding, but more importantly, we were sentinels. We are standing guard over that wedded couple, we got the watch. We’re on watch forever. Well last summer, Fraitzel calls, saying he was having some trouble with Bridget, that’s his wife’s name–Not cheating mind you, more like…friction, but hinting it might be unfixable… And at first I was like, you know, “Hang in there.” “Anytime you want to talk.” The usual. But I told Dom, and Dom’s like, “Get your ass over there!” I go, “Why?” Dom said, “Go be a sentinel!” And he was right! Boom! I drove to Fraitzel’s place, sat him down and said, “I will not let you do this. You cannot give up. I owe you this. So he says, “Hey Roddy, lay off, I’m only human.” I say, “You’re only human?” “So, what, you’re only required to work it out if you’re a Klingon? Only Mr. Spock’s got to dig deep?” I says, “Guy, your humanity is not in dispute here! Your humanity is the problem!” Just sayin’, although he was resistant at first…He was two steps out the door…He stayed. She stayed. And now? They are thriving. Thriving.
This is a perfect example of Mike’s writing, its difficulties, its humor, his voice, and watching Bobby Moynihan perform this monologue is a revelation. Because of the character’s own unspoken fears about his marriage, there is a cry of sadness throughout. It is as though he is wondering, “Who’s gonna be MY sentinel? Where’s MY sentinel? My marriage is in the shitter!” The message of the monologue is not something that many people want to hear, and Betsy’s resistance to it echoes the common sentiment. “Please don’t judge other people”, etc. But Roddy has feelings about marriage and what it means, even in the face of his own problems. On top of all of that, is the drunkenness of the character, and the buzz of anxiety about where the heck his wife is and what happened to his whole damn life. It’s all in the monologue. It’s all in the text. Bobby Moynihan, not known for dramatic roles, charges off the screen with authenticity and desperation. It’s unforgettable.
In the QA following the screening I saw at the Boston Film Festival, Giancarlo Esposito referenced that “sentinel monologue” and said, “I believe that it will be done in acting classes by generations to come.”
It’s that good.
Certainty is primarily the journey of Deb and Dom, but the other characters, Kevin, Melissa, Dom’s mom, Roddy, all interesect, because that is how we all live our lives. We do not operate in a vacuum. Our childhoods, our religion, our friends, all have a huge impact on how we see ourselves. We have to integrate all of those different selves. It’s part of being a grownup. Certainty does not make fun of the mother for having a strong faith. And it doesn’t scorn Dom for having no faith.
At last a family I recognize.
Peter Askin handles all of these elements with finesse and efficiency. It’s very tight, very well held together, with deep emotions existing side by side with jokes and hilarity. You care about all of these people.
The end result is a film rich with emotion, charged with huge laughs, and, finally, keening with a real sense of yearning. A yearning for people to connect, to re-connect, to find one another in the darkness, to hold on, to let go, and then to grab on again. There are issues that are important, there are issues that seem important but are not, and then there are issues that need to be tossed entirely. Finding your way through that muddle is difficult on an easy day.
Certainty, above all else, respects the struggle.
To repeat: How refreshing.