Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
A great story can emerge from the most mundane of circumstances, because of the way humans interact, and because of how the tiniest things can be a microcosm for much larger issues. For example, an Emmy-winning episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, entitled “Baggage,” is at its most simple a disagreement about a piece of luggage. But the larger, grander scope is about power dynamics in a relationship, taking one another for granted, and how much we rely on traditional gender roles. All of it stems from Ray and Debra absentmindedly leaving a suitcase on the steps because they’re both exhausted after a long trip, and wondering who should carry it upstairs well after the fact. It’s that simple.
It’s that kind of premise, miniscule but capable of going in so many directions, that sets the framework for The Argument, at its core an everyday misunderstanding between a man and a woman in a committed relationship. And like many sitcoms, the most basic of adult conversations could solve all the problems. But like that episode of Raymond and so many stories like it, the escalation is what helps sell the drama, and shows us a much grander character study.
The story exists largely as a bottle film, with the vast majority of the action taking place in a single room – a living room – with some asides in a kitchen and dining room. The close quarters keep the narrative contained nicely, but it also provides both intimacy and discomfort to boost the dramatic tension. Directed by Robert Schwartzman (son of Talia Shire), you can see a couple of nods to the Hollywood royalty from whence he came, employing some very tight shots reminiscent of his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola.
The film centers on three couples: First we have Jack and Lisa, played by Dan Fogler (literally the only good thing about the Fantastic Beasts movies) and Emma Bell (A Quiet Passion and The Walking Dead). Jack is a screenwriter who’s had one B-movie about zombies produced, while Lisa is an actress performing in a stage production about Mozart, her first major role. Next there’s Jack’s agent Brett (Danny Pudi of Community and DuckTales) and his girlfriend Sarah (Maggie Q), an entertainment lawyer. Finally, there’s Paul (Tyler James Williams, also of The Walking Dead and the titular Chris of Everybody Hates Chris), Lisa’s co-star in the play and his new girlfriend Trina (Cleopatra Coleman from The Last Man on Earth).
Right off the bat, you know you’re in for some great antics on the strength of the cast alone. Everyone of them has some strong comedic chops, and given that a lot of them have done TV work, they’re used to making large use of a confined space. It’s that strength of character performance that carries the first third of the film, which admittedly drags a bit, but is necessary for the great payoffs down the line.
I’m not a fan of awkward cringe comedy, which comprises the first 25 minutes of the film, but thankfully it’s not too bad, especially if you picture it as a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, what with the party setting, feuding couples, and the fear of infidelity. It also works because the film takes the time to establish these characters in familiar archetypes. Jack is a sweet, caring, creative type who adores Lisa, but knows deep down that she’s out of his league, at least within traditional Hollywood beauty standards. Lisa is loyal and committed to Jack, but gets caught up in her big moment, oblivious to the harm her extroverted nature might cause for Jack or others. Brett is a good friend who can’t say no to people, so he gets himself into situations that become hard to leave. Sarah initially comes off bitchy and aloof, but it turns out she’s the audience cipher, commenting on the nonsense before her in an exhausted monotone as the “adult” of the group who just can’t be fake with people. Paul is a flirt and really into himself, but also dedicated to his craft. He’s shallow, but also puts in the effort to earn his swagger. Finally, Trina begins as an ingenue, but has a deeper desire for substance and personal connection in a partner, eschewing the tired “eye candy” trope.
There’s something relatable in every one of these characters, and the performances do them so much justice. Maggie Q becomes the MVP of the proceedings the crazier they get. Dan Fogler is so over-the-top in his reactions to every perceived slight that you can’t help but feel for him even when he’s acting like a complete ass. Danny Pudi, arguably the most animated character actor of the bunch, gets to have a lot of fun playing the straight man for the first half of the film, and he pulls it off admirably.
The titular argument is based in simple insecurity. Paul flirts with Lisa, Lisa responds positively, and Jack becomes jealous and suspicious. The audience can see themselves in these characters and interpret the relative faults of those involved in any number of ways. Things come to an abrupt end when Jack throws a tantrum and slams a pie he baked onto the floor.
If you left things there, the story could still function, but the fun is in the aftermath. In an attempt to determine who was right in this quarrel, the couple decides to invite everyone back and reenact the entire night, even though Trina is ill from drinking too much and Sarah has an “actual job” to do, so she can’t keep wasting time on something so trivial about people she doesn’t even really like. Once the other couples are let in on the scheme, the movie shifts into the theatre of the absurd, spending several nights going over every fine detail (Sarah has a conveniently photographic memory), writing it into a script, and even hiring outside actors to perform the scenes for a more objective opinion.
It’s this escalation that makes things so fun. When it’s all said and done, the actual fight is a big pile of nothing, but Schwartzman and his wonderfully game cast use it to bring deep-seeded issues to the surface that need to be addressed. Jack wants to use the party to propose to Lisa, but without confronting his insecurities and her lapses in empathy, they’re never going to make it. So in a way, the absurdity makes perfect sense. And along the way we get to laugh at numerous charcuterie boards, stories about topless zombies, Antonio Salieri, and a sock puppet. Can’t argue with that.