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D: Adam Goldberg / 98m

Cast: Adam Goldberg, Ahna O’Reilly, Eric Siegel, Anna Belknap, Pat Healy, Greg Pritikin, Gillian Jacobs, Emily Osment, Brendan Hines

Musician Jose Stern (Goldberg) is fast approaching forty and is reduced to playing children’s parties with his band, the Borges. He’s also engaged to Dusty (O’Reilly), and though they haven’t set a date, they have decided on where to go for their honeymoon: Mexico (as you can’t drive to Hawaii). When best friends Gabe and Kate (Siegel, Belknap) suggest that they hold a joint birthday party for Jose and their young daughter Violet, Jose is initially ambivalent, but thanks to Dusty’s urging, agrees to the idea. Later that night in their new apartment, Dusty downloads an app to her phone that brings to light something about Jose that she doesn’t know. For Dusty it proves to be a deal breaker, despite Jose’s explanation of what she’s learnt.

Their relationship over, Jose crashes on Gabe and Kate’s couch. Kate goes out to work while Gabe stays at home to look after Violet and their infant son, Fred, and provide piano lessons to children. They row a lot, but in-between times, Jose manages to get them to give their opinions on what to do next. Their answer (based on having two impressionable children in the home): frog Dusty and move on. But Jose can’t quite do that, even though he won’t contact her. Instead he hooks up with an old girlfriend, Penny (Jacobs), when she calls him out of the blue, but the evening they spend together proves disappointing.

With his friends, Lawrence (Healy) and Mickey (Pritikin), Jose begins to put Dusty behind him (though he still feels strongly about her). When he learns that Dusty has decided to cash in their honeymoon tickets and go by herself, Jose – who doesn’t fly – follows her there in a last ditch effort to win her back. But when he gets there, he gets a surprise, one that’s exacerbated by Dusty telling him something unexpected…

No Way Jose - scene

Adam Goldberg’s fourth directorial feature since 1998 (the last one, I Love Your Work, was released in 2003), No Way Jose is an acerbic, drily witty look at the pitfalls of modern relationships. Co-written with Sarah Kate Levy, Goldberg’s take on the middle-aged man-child coming to terms with commitment has a couple of comedic set pieces – Jose struggling to talk to Dusty while strung out on Ativan; Kate coming home and yelling coarsely at someone on the phone – but is mostly a sedate, considered drama that  features some great performances while never quite saying anything too profound about the differences between men and women.

From the outset it’s clear that Jose is out of his depth, somehow having reached the age of forty without getting married or having children. His musical career is in the doldrums, and while his relationship with Dusty seems like a dream come true (you know she’s far too good for him), his cavalier attitude and need for approbation marks him out as an outsider, jogging along but without much purpose or direction. Faced with having to grow up and find some meaning in his life, Jose’s reaction is to cling even tighter to his sense of freedom, even though losing Dusty has made him begin (without realising) to reassess what he wants from Life.

Goldberg is a quirky, unpredictable actor, but here he tones down his usual schtick to give us a character who’s more unsure than confident, and who’s only a few steps away from being a complete loser. As such it’s hard to sympathise with him completely as a lot of his problems are caused by a lack of consideration of others; he’s his own worst enemy. By making Jose so insecure, and with so little ambition, Goldberg has painted himself into a bit of a corner. It doesn’t take long to realise that Jose’s coasting along is robbing the movie of a good deal of drama, and with that realisation, most viewers may find themselves less interested in how things play out. It doesn’t help either that Dusty is sidelined once their relationship is over, and disappears until the movie’s end, when she’s required to respond to Jose’s lovelorn melancholy in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen more than a few romantic dramas.

With Jose being less than completely interesting, it falls to the supporting cast to provide most of the entertainment. It’s here that Goldberg and Levy have done the movie a favour, investing the supporting characters with enough humorous foibles to offset the moodiness of the central storyline. Siegel and Belknap are terrific as a warring couple continually trying to score points off each other and offloading their parental responsibilities on each other at every opportunity (the phrase “Violet’s done a bad thing” will linger in the memory). Healy and Pritikin also provide sterling performances, their characters’ idiosyncrasies played to the fore and fully recognisable as the kind of friends most of us have despite our best wishes or intentions.

On the distaff side, O’Reilly is a pleasure to watch as Jose’s engaging other half, and she makes enough of an impact that her enforced departure from the story feels calamitous. As the “coconut water” drinking Penny, Jacobs soon turns into the ex we’d all like to forget, but instead of enhancing the drama by having Jose sleep with her (or just be seen with her by Dusty), Goldberg elects to have Jose refuse her overtures and not go through with anything, reaffirming his inability to take chances.

Where Goldberg does get things right is in his choice of music to support the emotional beats within the movie – the songs that play in Jose’s car shortly after Dusty dumps him, including One Is the Loneliest Number, are inspired – and his choice of cinematographer, Mark Putnam, his go-to guy when making features. Putnam is great at coming up with shots that provide maximum effect, and guided by Goldberg, keeps things continually interesting within the frame. It all serves to make the visual aspect of the movie more compelling than expected.

Rating: 7/10 – flawed but still mostly enjoyable, No Way Jose is an indie drama with comedic overtones that tells its simple story without much embellishment or pretentiousness; alas this makes for a movie that feels somewhat underdeveloped, and while there are good performances throughout, there’s too little of substance going on to improve things.