Directed by Maximillian Aguiar/ Reviewed by Prarthana Mitra
US filmmaker-editor-comedian Maximillian Aguiar brings Pirandello to improv in his latest film The Doors Between Us, a surreal dialogue-oriented comedy that appears more mysterious that it is. Premiering at Alamo Drafthouse (Denver) presentation, the film depicts four pairs of antithetical characters, each trapped in a room, and in turn, by their differences. Their limits are tested as they argue about, well, everything.
Keeping in mind that the film was being written in real time – with the actors improvising on Aguiar’s cues on set – brings in a certain novelty to the entire project. Formally speaking, it takes an extremely talented cast and crew to even attempt an improvised comedy feature film. The team’s probably been hawking a long-form show around this for years before converting it into a full-length movie.
While The Doors… is no This is Spinal Tap, it has its moments. Shot in glorious black and white, Eric Paton’s cinematography is crisp with sharp camera movements, given the improvised nature of the action, but consistent as it moves from one pair to the next. The soundtrack and art direction are heavily inspired by stage sound and stage design, sustaining a high-pressure situation.
In terms of performance, there were inconsistencies as well as break-outs, as actors tried to get into character while developing them in a Pirandellian fashion. Despite the meandering dialogue, the actors were able to bring their individual quirks, backstories and trajectories back to the locus of their being trapped, inside a mysterious house whose rooms are locked, and which they have no memory of entering.
The motley crew includes, among others, a dying woman, a Southern conservative, an Upper East Sider, a metalhead, a junkie, and a Pennywise-esque circus clown who speaks like Jar Jar Binks! Waseem Aad stands out for his portrayal of James, a New Yorker with a squint, along with Bill Collins who plays a typical white American man, perhaps the least eccentric of the lot. All of them get off on the wrong foot, but they go from going for the jugular to finding common ground with the person they are trapped with.
This transformation is excruciatingly long and slow, due to the 2-hour runtime, but still feels thoroughly out of place and under-baked. Perhaps a tighter cut would have injected some quality control and intrigue in the otherwise simple premise. More importantly, Aguiar’s role as the audience in this scenario means that the direction could have been more vigilant, steering actors towards responses and choices that wouldn’t leave the audience feeling left out of a private joke.
Someone criticised Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems last month, saying that the movie was “too loud”. That judgement is well-reserved for The Doors Between Us. There is an awful lot of unconvincing angry shouting, right off the bat. This kind of animated projection and energy works better on stage. But here, the incessant bickering (and a fist fight) was off-putting, especially when it is drawn out for twenty odd minutes. Time that should have been better spent on establishing context and character. The content and quality of these arguments also fail to impress while the horseplay and hurling of insults does nothing to add to the heuristic exercise. The dialogic tropes are repetitive and the jokes are, in places, forced and insensitive – making the characters harder to sympathise with.
Even after listening to the characters speak for two hours, very little can be said about the real lives of these men and women except that their interpersonal incompatibilities build from how unlike they are. While it seems to throw satirical light on the silliness of our ignorant presumptions and prejudices, that reading is too simplistic, because in real life, we are often intolerant towards people who are not really very different from us.
What could have been a deeply insightful and incisive exploration of characters – from a vast cross-section of the US – turns out to be little more than a series of sketches put together and taking no meaningful narrative direction until the last fifteen minutes. The point of contention here, not being the lack of a script, but the fact that as a piece of cinema, The Doors Between Us feels lacking in historical cohesion, character development, and structural strength.
Whether or not it was Aguiar’s intent, the lack of a plausible explanation that typically rounds off a thriller was further pronounced by a heart-sinking fact: despite giving the characters the agency to resolve their own crisis, their arcs hit dead ends which makes this agency ineffectual. When the credits roll, burning questions remain. Who are the characters really? Why were they imprisoned together? Who is the mastermind? Without these answers, our eight characters remain in search of their author.