The strange difficulties of two urban artistic twenty-somethings are amusingly full of heart.
Back when Apartment Troubles premiered at LAFF in June, the quirky comedy about two friends trying to make it in Manhattan on an artist’s salary (translation: no income at all) was called Trouble Dolls. A crumpled piece of paper at the beginning of the movie explains the Guatemalan myth of the trouble doll: A young girl can place one of these toy dolls under her pillow, and the doll will solve all her problems while she sleeps. Hey, a 20-something without financial support in the big city has to try something. But, needless to say, the dolls suck at their job. An eviction notice and one dead pet cat later, Olivia (Jennifer Prediger) and Nicole (Jess Weixler) are on a plane to LA to get away from it all. They stay with Nicole’s aunt Kimberley (Megan Mullally), a has-been judge on an America’s Got Talent-esque program. Nicole, a conceptual artist more prone to quote Chekhov than Katy Perry, can hardly stand in her aunt’s presence without a glass of red wine in hand. But broke and with nowhere to go, Nicole and Olivia take up residence in Kimberley’s home and before long are auditioning for the show.
Apartment Troubles marks the directorial and screenwriting debuts for both Weixler and Prediger. What I found interesting about the script—clearly intended to be a comedy—is that I didn’t do a whole lot of laughing. In some cases the humor seems to have been lost in translation: scenes with Will Forte, who plays a socially awkward but well-meaning guy who offers the girls a ride in LA, just completely fail to land. But jokes about a 30-year-old guy who still cares way too much about his mother’s approval turn out to be far more harmless than the bizarre plot twist with Aunt Kimberley, who takes a liking to Olivia (for more than just her voice). Their scenes together are more uncomfortable than entertaining, and like Forte’s character, completely tangential to the plot.
Where the movie succeeds is with the two leading ladies, and since this is ultimately a character piece with bits of humor thrown in to lighten its existential weight, their performances really do provide enough to make this is a worthwhile venture. I said I didn’t laugh a lot, but intentional or not, that’s something I kind of liked about this movie. It’s easy to take eccentric artsy types and make them into caricatures, but that’s not what this movie is really about. While a show like Girls helps us to laugh with a generation of girls who got their Bachelor degrees and make naive (sometimes absurd) life choices, I don’t think Apartment Troubles is really trying to critique its lead characters. Instead, I think it’s trying to ask if there is a place in this world for people like them, a question worth asking in an age where art degrees are looked at with the same disdain as drug addiction or sexual promiscuity. Nicole’s family treats her art ventures as a harmful and destructive life choice. One she could ultimately change. “I don’t think they want her around the kids,” Kimberley confesses to Olivia on why Nicole’s family may have taken a vacation without her.
Maybe it’s helpful here that Prediger and Weixler wrote the script, because Weixler’s Nicole, particularly, feels eccentric, yes, but like a living, breathing person. She has a way of delivering her lines with a certain calm and carefulness—a bit counter-stereotype for a role like this. There is, however, a deflatedness in her energy on-screen, like if she wasn’t too poor to eat something other than juice smoothies, she might want to try a small dosage of Zoloft. She’s been beaten down, and now her one remaining lifeline, her bestie Olivia, is making strides toward normalcy: successfully making small talk with strange dudes in cars, landing a TV ad, and insisting the girls apply for a silly reality TV show.
To be honest, if someone positioned this film to me as “two east coast girls take a leap of faith and go on a reality TV show,” I would have never hit play. The premise seems prime for obvious and overdone satire, but I think the reason it works here is because we never stray too far from a story of two friends. It’s not about auditioning for TV, it’s about two young ladies, finding their footing in the world. Their response to rejection shows the film’s subtle tension: these girls both desperately need each other and just as desperately need to separate from one another. Outside of the confines of whatever quirky art school they just graduated from, each has to learn to what extent she’ll adapt and which rules of society they’ll choose to play by.
The script doesn’t let Nicole go on depressive woe-is-me tangents, but as far as I’m concerned, this film is all about her, and taking an eccentric personality and treating her with the subtlety Weixler does is an appreciated surprise when dealing with this genre. By the movie’s end it’s not any external circumstance that lets us know she’ll be OK, but the way she quotes Chekov to a starving cat while sitting in a pile of trash outside her apartment (OK, I confess, this sounds hilarious—but it’s a genuinely tender moment). The fact that she can still see beauty in the struggle lets us know Nicole isn’t broken. And maybe it’s not she that needs to change, she just needs to change the minds of others.
It’s not a perfect script by any stretch, and it probably helps if you already have a little empathy for the plight of the artistically inclined, but the film has a lot of heart—and both Prediger and Weixler are transfixing on screen. It’s impossible not to root for them. Even I was able to forget that a conceptual piece about a dead cat could never do well on a cutthroat talent competition. That’s America’s loss.