Best known as a 40-year veteran of the indie distribution scene, Jeff Lipsky has latterly carved out a sideline as one of New York’s most idiosyncratic indie filmmakers—a purveyor of confessional, sexually frank relationship dramas clearly indebted to his acknowledged masters: Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes. The best of the bunch remains 2006’s Flannel Pajamas, based on the breakup of his own marriage. As for Lipsky’s fifth and latest feature, it’s an unclassifiable head-scratcher—a magical-realist mélange of ideas about the state of the economy, the state of the American family, and the state of the universe. The title character is a newly unemployed astrophysicist (Sophia Takal) on the eve of a life-changing move from New York to Norway, boxing up her cramped apartment while her husband (Lawrence Michael Levine) unleashes years of pent-up invective against his no-account father (Reed Birney), and a steady stream of Halloween dinner guests arrive at the door. They include a 9-year-old in an Albert Einstein costume, a possibly imaginary neighbor boy, and the ghosts of various dead relatives. Bon appetit! Lipsky is clearly reaching for something grand and cosmic here, but the results are mostly just confounding.
In Twelve Thirty, getting fucked by a bright-eyed college kid proves a bonding experience for one Iowa family. In the aftermath of three wildly different sexual encounters with twentysomething Jeff (Jonathan Groff), spunky Mel (Portia Reiners), her morose sister, Maura (Mamie Gummer), and the pair’s mom, Vivien (Karen Young), re-establish a measure of interfamilial intimacy—both with each other and with the latter’s gay ex-husband. Sexuality runs from the thrillingly casual to the squeamishly disagreeable in Jeff Lipsky’s film, but mostly screwing—like trust, love, and happiness—becomes the stuff of ceaseless conversation. Essentially a series of verbal pas de deux, the film pairs off its six characters (Maura’s Satanist friend completes the sextet) in various arrangements for chats by turns aggressive and stutteringly awkward. These exchanges have an echo-chamber feel to them, as if they’re cut off from both the outside world and the way actual people talk, but realism is clearly not what Lipsky is after. Instead, he crafts an odd self-contained universe in which the characters’ compulsive need to explain themselves or simply hold their interlocutor’s attention stands in for the meaning of the words they actually say, resulting in a film more satisfying in occasional isolated moments than as a coherent dramatic entity.
Indie-film exec Jeff Lipsky’s sophomore feature as writer-director shares with his distribution work a desire to restore some of the untidier virtues of ’70s American film. For one thing, that means the well-off thirtysomething couple in this epic study of a relationship’s slow deterioration—from horniness to marriage and consensual masturbation in place of sex—spends less time charming its bourgeois audience than making it squirm in unflattering recognition. Money, believably, drives a wedge between PR spinmaster Stuart (Justin Kirk) and the underachieving Nicole (Julianne Nicholson), yet Lipsky, to his credit, portrays everything in the relationship— family planning not least—as a kind of minutely calculated business transaction. (Peeing in the tub can be forgiven, but not debt.) At a full two hours, Lipsky’s talky movie is more compelling in its second half, when the spouses finally get around to being themselves. “You never used to talk to me like this when we were dating,” says Nicole. “Were you just censoring yourself back then?”