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D: Brian Crano / 98m

Cast: Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens, Gina Gershon, François Arnaud, Morgan Spector, David Joseph Craig, Jason Sudeikis

Anna (Hall) and Will (Stevens) have been together since forever, a couple with no other relationship experience except their own. They’ve never lived as a couple with anyone else, never had sex with anyone else, and never felt that they’ve missed out on anything as a result. In short, they live in a state of blissful monogamy. Will is an artisan who makes furniture and is renovating a house for he and Anna to move into, while Anna is finishing up her music thesis. Will has begun to believe that it’s the perfect time to propose, but at the same dinner in which he plans to pop the question, another one is raised by Reece (Spector), the partner of Anna’s brother, Hale (Craig): how can either of them be sure each is “the one” when they’ve never “been” with anyone else? Will holds off on proposing, and it isn’t long before both of them are contemplating the idea of sleeping with other people. Soon an agreement is reached whereby Anna meets musician Dane (Arnaud), and Will meets wealthy divorcée, Lydia (Gershon). But their agreement soon starts to cause problems between them…

It’s not immediately obvious while watching Permission, but Brian Crano’s second feature after the more easy-going A Bag of Hammers (2011), has a secret agenda that it doesn’t reveal until at the very end. You could say it’s in the nature of a twist, something that the viewer won’t see coming, but with any good twist the clues should be woven into the narrative from the start so that even if the twist really does come as a complete surprise then at least the viewer can look back and – hopefully – spot those moments where they were hoodwinked. Unfortunately, writer/director Crano doesn’t do this, so when one of his two main characters does pitch that curveball, it’s likely to provoke more headscratching than nodding in agreement. But before then, Crano is already sending the viewer mixed messages, so perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. Anna and Will are set up initially as the poster couple for committed monogamy, but the speed with which they allow Reece’s poser to have them throwing away their commitment to each other is as unseemly as Anna’s later encounter with a gallery owner.

Of course, this is the thrust of the movie: is Anna and Will’s specific kind of monogamy healthy enough for a relationship to succeed? But the material is too uneven to provide any kind of definitive answer (though it does decide that casual hook-ups are a no-no), and so instead of having Anna and Will explore other sexual experiences and then bring those experiences back to their own relationship, both engage in new relationships that test their own commitment in different ways. Crano can’t resist throwing in some clichés – Will asks if Dane is bigger than him, Dane falls in love with Anna – but too often the script fails to relate things back to Will and Anna except in the most perfunctory of ways. Hall is as spiky and watchable as ever, while Stevens has more of a comic role that feels at odds with the intended drama of the material. As the objects of Will and Anna’s new affections, Gershon is breezy and likeable while Arnaud is left high and dry by his character having nowhere to go. There’s an intriguing sub-plot involving Hale’s desire to have a baby (which isn’t shared by Reece), and at times this is more interesting, but overall this is a movie that puts its central characters into a number of uncomfortable situations and then gifts them a convenient way out almost every time – so where’s the lesson there?

Rating: 6/10 – if monogamy is your thing and “well-meaning” affairs are the antithesis of what you believe is right, then Permission won’t be the movie for you; even as a potential comedy of errors and/or manners it falls short, and if the movie has any kind of message it’s that you actually don’t have to be careful what you wish for.