‘Union Square’ can sometimes feel like a short film stretched and contrived into a feature

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Union Square

Directed by Nancy Savoca

Written by Nancy Savoca

USA, 2011

In New York City, a shamelessly flamboyant Lucy (Mira Sorvino) arrives in Manhattan from the Bronx, hoping to escape a cascade of emotional problems. In search of an oasis amongst the vast concrete jungle, Lucy finds her way to the doorsteps of Jenny (Tammy Blanchard), her estranged sister of three years.

As Jenny reluctantly lets her in, old conflicts are reignited, forcing both women to look at their own and each other’s flaws.

Like Steve McQueen’s Shame, Nancy Savoca’s Union Square is about two siblings, with wildly divergent personalities, in a hopelessly impossible situation. As insidious as the respective premises are, McQueen is able to deftly handle the matter with enough grace under pressure to transcend and exceed our penitent expectations for mere banality. Savoca, however, doesn’t do quite as well.

The best way to see the film as a whole is to examine the lead protagonists, Lucy and Jenny. Lucy is the self-destructive, over-the-top, glitzy diva with a penchant for emotional outbursts and unrestrained diatribes. Jenny, on the other hand, had run away from the foibles of her family, embodied in Lucy.  She is the composed, meek and mild type of woman. Married to a vegetarian health geek, no less.

Clearly they don’t work well together, and this serves as an analogy for the film’s larger problem.

For a long stretch of time, Union Square will be tonally similar to Lucy, especially when it’s focused on her. Full of shrill tirades and ornate escapades, Lucy and her adventures exude ridiculousness. It’s almost as if the film is playing her character for laughs, using her volatile sensibilities to amuse or bring some kind of levity to the otherwise lugubrious affair.

However, when Jenny is introduced, the tone changes completely, taking on a more somber, plaintive perspective of the situation. Not only does this muddle the overall tone of the film, it makes everything uneven, from the tenor to the pacing.

One moment, we are at a club, watching Lucy try to party and drink her problems away, and the next, we are at their home, with Jenny pouring her inner most thoughts to her husband, Bill (Mike Doyle). While it tries to walk the line between humour and drama, it ends up doing neither. Not successfully, anyway.

To compound this problem, the tension between Lucy and Jenny stagnates for a long period of time. From their reintroduction with each other, we already get a sense of the strained history, but instead of escalating or resolving it in a pragmatic way, the conflict just sits there while the two reiterate to each other the fact that their relationship is far from copasetic.

The film consequently drags for quite a bit until situations and supporting characters are artificially injected to get the movie flowing again. The frustration in the characters is almost palpable because, as an audience, we almost feel the same way, having to wait for what seems like an interminable amount of time before something truly happens. If one is to be overly critical, Union Square can sometimes feel like a short film stretched and contrived into a feature.

The one saving grace for the film is in its acting. Although a borderline Jersey Shore caricature, Sorvino acts with enough commitment and verve to make her character feel like a genuine person, albeit incredibly kitsch. Blanchard also plays her character quite adeptly, with her performance lending well to the naturally contrasting personalities of the characters, providing ample antagonism.

But, like its characters, the film is a tale of two attitudes. While it sometimes feels like an ostentatious, brazen MTV-type kind of picture (à la Lucy), it will also sometimes feel like a benevolent, sickly saccharine movie befitting of a time slot on Lifetime (à la Jenny). Union Square tries to find a middle ground between the two, but, again, like its characters, the result is decidedly unhappy.

– Justin Li


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