Compelling Parts Can’t Carry the Whole in Twelve Thirty

Alice Gregory | January 20, 2011

Jonathan Groff and Portia Reiners in "Twelve Thirty"

Twelve-Thirty, the fourth feature film directed by Jeff Lipsky, is hermetically fantastic, scene-by-scene, with formal dialogue and stilted acting worthy of Eric Rohmer or Whit Stillman. Lipsky, who founded October Films and Lot 47 Films, was mentored by John Cassavetes early in his career, and like the famed auteur, he shares an instinct for improvisation and the dirty real.

Jeff (Jonathan Groff) is a 22-year-old aspiring architect, but his age and ambition are only secondary characteristics to his virginity. Jeff has thick, senatorial hair. His complexion is translucent like skim milk and his masculine resolve just as insipid. Over the course of the film, he “mans up,” but perversely — by sleeping with a family of women. After bedding his provocative, long-time crush Mel Langley (Portia Reiners), who stains antique furniture and cooks chili, he sleeps with her frigid, formerly druggy sister Maura (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter), and finally their passionate furrier of a mother, Vivien (Karen Young). But as he makes his way through the women — from youngest to oldest — Jeff tangles their relationships. At first, the confessions and betrayals Jeff instigates seem destructive and awful, but slowly they reveal themselves to be points of bonding for the otherwise estranged women.

There is unexplained rejection, disputed consensuality, and even a bisexual father — all against the bland backdrop of suburban Iowa City. The performances feel like those of a really good school play: earnest and a little self-conscious. Each vignette, in isolation, is captivating, but as a whole, the film seems under-edited and unmotivated. Maura’s best friend is a Satanist, for instance, a pointless detail that impacts nothing. And one early scene focuses on two old British widows, who seem as though they might be lovers. Their conversation is charming and strange (one of them founded a museum devoted entirely to historical keys), but ultimately it comes to naught. Their lines are just as imaginative and empathetic as those of the other characters, but they disappear and bear no relation to any other part of the story. Mel and Jeff drive out to the country to visit a locked church, whose only significance is that its name – “The Church of the Open Door” — is mirrored in the name of the key museum — “The Museum of the Open Door.” But like the grandiose repetitions and vague patterns perceived by schizophrenics, this doubling is meaningless. Underscoring characters’ disconnectedness by creating a narrative with irrelevant parts isn’t so much too obvious as it is too frustrating. It feels like investing a lot of time with a shy person only to discover that their still waters do not run so deep.

None of the sex acts are introduced with any foreplay at all, and Mel is the only one of the three women Jeff kisses, though in a car, hours before they make their way to the bedroom. “I want to have sex with you. Tonight. I’ll be angry if we don’t,” she tells him. Mel presents herself, midday, on all fours, in a brightly lit room. When Jeff has sex with Maura, it’s at a party, in a pitch-black closet (the scene is dark enough for long enough that I thought there was a problem with the print until the lights finally come on, minutes later). Though at first she’s amenable, she soon tells him to stop, and he doesn’t. Afterwards, he sweetens up. “Let me just stay in here with you for a minute,” he whispers. “Is that customary?” she answers back. Later, Maura wonders if she was raped. Jeff’s interlude with Vivien — the girls’ mother — is a chance encounter. The richness of her character is commendable. She’s postmenopausal, but sensual. She wears good underwear, instructs Jeff to stroke one of her mink coats, and barks life advice at him.

After Jeff has penetrated both daughters and their mother (it never becomes fully clear if all — or any — of them know they’ve been shared), the Langleys become closer. Maura confides to Mel about her past adolescent mistakes and takes a long, intimate walk with her father, whose bisexuality she previously disapproved of. Vivien comes clean to Maura about her intermittent regret about having children, the fear that her daughters were what chased her husband into the arms of a man. “I hate that last part honey,” Vivien says solemnly after the confession, “but it’s there.” In talking about her ex-husband, with whom, it should be said, she still has infrequent sex (“the best lover I’ve ever had”), Vivien goes on to bestow some biographically acquired wisdom. “He made me feel like I was protected, and that’s the worst thing that can ever happen to a woman. The worst thing.”  Lines like these, when they’re stated, emerge with expectations that soon shatter. Is this the emotional core of the film? Its message? In the hands of another director, lessons learned and shared adhere characters to one another, but Lipsky seems instead to insist upon interpersonal isolation. The crescendo quits, and we turn to something else.

An exquisitely protracted prank partially dislodges any of the damage we thought Jeff has wrecked on the Langleys. And the film closes with a flashback to the high school detention hall where Jeff and Mel originally met years before. But circular narrative structure is not Lipsky’s aim here. The film, in fact, has little discernable architecture. Each room is pleasant and entertaining, but it’s a house built in a different world, inhabited by relative strangers and without context.