There are two movies opening this week about screwed-up young men struggling with romance in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and, as it happens, both of them are directed by actors: The Hottest State (THINKfilm), by Ethan Hawke from a screenplay he adapted from his own novel, and Dedication (the Weinstein Company), by Justin Theroux (Six Feet Under, Mulholland Drive) from an original screenplay by David Bromberg. The resemblances in story and theme between the two movies may be purely casual (though their common location does suggest that Williamsburg is becoming romantic comedy's new Manhattan, the place angsty heroes go to pine for their Annie Halls). But watching the two films makes for an object lesson in what tends to happen when thespians get behind a camera.
Film acting can strike us nonactors as a fairly straightforward craft—you just stand on your mark and say your lines while, like, meaning them, right? But as anyone who's been conscripted to help with a student film can testify, not looking like a complete fool onscreen is a deceptively difficult craft. Actor-directors have a reputation for understanding this and for treating their own actors with respect, which may be why their projects often attract talented casts: Even the secondary roles in The Hottest State and Dedication boast the likes of Laura Linney, Bob Balaban, Michelle Williams, and Tom Wilkinson.
Conversely, directing a film must seem like a snap to those who spend their lives on the other side of the lens: Just point the camera at your actors, yell, "action," and then yell, "cut" when the scene is done. So, why is it that actor-directors are so intent on doing stuff with the camera: overcranking it, turning it on and off for a jump-cut effect, eternally jiggling it to and fro? Both Hawke and Theroux suffer from this kind of hyperkinesis, tossing in unmotivated process shots and random bursts of slow-mo as if to assure themselves and us that, yes, they're making a movie.
In The Hottest State, William (Mark Webber), a 20-year-old Texas native, is just starting to find some success as an actor in New York when he meets Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an aspiring singer-songwriter, in a bar. Three days later they're moving in together, even though Sara refuses at first to consummate their relationship. (Maybe she's waiting for William to shampoo his greasy hipster shag, a plot development viewers will also long for in vain.) Finally, during a sex-drenched one-week trip to Mexico, the two fall besottedly in love, but upon their return to New York, Sara is curiously distant and cold. As it turns out, she's freaked by William's clingy, controlling ways, and she dumps him, sending him on an excruciatingly introspective journey of self-discovery.
In a few well-wrought scenes—like a cruelly funny one in which William leaves a series of increasingly pathetic messages on Sara's answering machine—the audience can identify with the main character's masochistic neediness. Who hasn't punched the odd refrigerator after a conciliatory phone call gone wrong? But most of the time, we're more in league with Sara, wishing this whiny, self-centered twerp would just go away. By the time William makes it down to Texas to blame his irritating personality on his estranged father (played by Hawke), this chronicle of a love gone wrong will feel longer than your own most-protracted breakup.
Billy Crudup somehow makes a far more damaged character seem like a better romantic bet in Dedication. He plays Henry Roth—not Henry Roth the real-life author of Call It Sleep, but Henry Roth the fictional author of a best-selling children's book about one Marty the Beaver. Henry is a misanthropic, phobic, obsessive-compulsive crank, incapable of relating to anyone but his longtime illustrator and collaborator, the curmudgeonly Rudy (Tom Wilkinson). When Rudy dies suddenly, Henry's publisher, Mr. Planck (Bob Balaban, at his deadpan best), matches his star author up with an insecure young illustrator, Lucy Riley (Mandy Moore). It's one of those hothouse scenarios found only in romantic comedies: If Marty the Beaver's Christmas adventure isn't ready in time for a seasonal release, Planck assures them, Henry's career is over and Lucy's will never get off the ground.
Cue lots of pencil-chewing and ceiling-staring as the prickly couple seek inspiration for their story, eventually retreating to Planck's Sag Harbor mansion for an unproductive artistic retreat. Obviously, these two are going to fall in love, but they face some significant hurdles, including Henry's chronic habit of insulting those he cares about and Lucy's inability to get over her pompous ex (a skeezeball academic played with great verve by the always-welcome Martin Freeman). Billy Crudup is a quiet, craftsmanlike actor. He understands Henry thoroughly enough to make a mentally ill man with a cruel sense of humor seem like someone worth loving (a trick Jack Nicholson never pulled off in As Good As It Gets). And Mandy Moore makes a surprisingly substantial foil, proving once again that she's left her 'tween-moppet phase behind.
Directorially, Dedication is a bit of a mess, unable to settle on a tone or visual style. But it leaves you wishing the oddball couple well, even if it does end with the required scene of the hero running through the streets of New York to find his beloved. A viewing of The Hottest State is likely to conclude with a crosstown sprint of a different kind: As soon as the credits start rolling, you can't wait to get out.