The raw material is familiar: It’s the 1970s. Two suburban couples are struggling with marital and monetary issues, while their kids are angsty, experimenting with drugs and alcohol and lusty as hell. Mix in some infidelity, a son who’s enlisted and a pretty young thing, and you’ve got John Cheever meets Beautiful Girls -- and moves to Weeds’ fictional Agrestic. Yet Lymelife, an indie starring Alec Baldwin that’s out this week on DVD, manages to cover well-trodden turf with dignity, taut writing and understated humor that keeps the drama from becoming overwrought.
The film unfolds through the eyes of Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin), a 15-year-old in Long Island who’s in love with his longtime pal, the beautiful Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts) and looks up to his dad, Mickey Bartlett (Baldwin), a wealthy real estate developer known for charming the ladies. Scott knows his parents are having their troubles, but he retains childhood innocence, secure in his domestic foundations.
Meanwhile, the Bartletts’ neighbors are having their own problems. Charlie and Melissa Bragg (Timothy Hutton and Cynthia Nixon) have been in slow decline as an item since Mr. Bragg was diagnosed with Lyme disease. He’s out of work and makes a feeble show of looking for a job, sadly appearing in a suit throughout the movie -- but clearly descending deeper into depression by the day. Mrs. Bragg, however, is a saucy lady without much depth. She’s unhappy, but it’s hard to feel too badly when she cares more about her evening attire than her ailing husband.
Like any good suburban tale (Holden Caulfield is actually referenced by name), there’s growing up to do -- for both the kids and the adults -- and some innocence to lose. Scott’s older brother Jimmy (Kieran Culkin) shows up on a break from the armed forces, and instantly becomes the film’s truth-teller, arm-breaker and buzz-kill, forcing Scott out of the womb and into early manhood. Even amid growing-up rituals involving Church and flesh, the most affirming scene for Scott is a realistic face-off against his father that captures pain and triumph, all in one go.
For all its topical convention, Lymelife is a well-paced gem with a surprising cast. Seeing some familiar faces is both fun and unnerving: Cynthia Nixon is blonde, and a lot sassier than Miranda! Alec Baldwin has a range for drama! Well, almost: A hint of his 30 Rock alter ego Jack Donaghy is tough to miss in Mickey’s broad bravado and incorrigible, sitcom-like lack of self awareness. Yet Baldwin, like his co-stars, stops just short of taking his character over the edge, staying instead within the uneasy insecurity that reigns in most real people. At least -- most real people who grew up in the suburbs.