By Elias Savada.
The directorial debut for Lee Wilkof – a long-time character actor in all forms of media and on many a stage – No Pay, Nudity is one for the art house crowd. Yet, even “art house” folks may have issues with the bland story line (by actor-turned-feature-debut screenwriter Ethan Sandler) and the light-handed direction of Wilkof about the trials and tribulations of an actor trying to re-find his soul. [Trivia: Wilkof created the boastful Seymour in the original off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors.]
The art of acting is what attracted Canton, Ohio-born Wilkof to the project. It’s all about what he has done for over 43 years. A sense of accomplishment, sometimes fame (or just a good review), and maybe a decent paycheck and a few perks. Mostly, it’s a struggle.
Gabriel Byrne, (still) best known for his contribution to 1995’s The Usual Suspects, is also greatly admired (by me, by others) for his mesmerizing portrayal of a troubled psychotherapist in HBO’s In Treatment. His weathered Dr. Paul Weston is not unlike his role in this new film, portraying another observer. He shuffles along in somewhat disheveled attire, his hair unkempt, with a sadness in his eyes.
Filmed back in 2014, No Pay, Nudity premiered at the Stony Brook Film Festival last July, where it won a special jury award for achievement in filmmaking. Most of the slim publicity the film has garnered came from Playbill, obviously because of the ensemble and crew’s theatrical roots.
New Yawker Lester Rosenthal, a.k.a. Lawrence Rose (Byrne), is in mid-life depression mode. Why not: his best successes as a professional actor are behind him, and he hates groveling for the few bucks on which he lives. When his dog, Barry, dies as the film begins, a receptionist at the veterinarian’s office barely recognizes him as a once well respected soap opera star. In between jobs, he’s content to spend his days in the Actors’ Equity lounge, one of the few benefits his vocation has to offer. There, he chats it up with other actors, including a bearded, lightly cantankerous Nathan Lane adorned like a modern day Teyve (lightly engaging as a character named Herschel, perhaps after the Bernardi who once portrayed the star of Fiddler on the Roof). For Herschel, we’ll eventually learn his life is tempered by regret, when he took his profession a tad too seriously years earlier. A graceful Frances Conroy plays Andrea, a contented listener who adores her small dog. Unfortunately, her wardrobe is more exciting than her underwritten character.
Other actor friends and strangers (including new-to-the-city kid named Reginald, nicely played by Jon Michael Hill) wander in and wander out, offering and getting life advice. Chit chat and sympathy (about Barry, about work) ensue. “All things die,” Lane ruminates, including some of their fellow thespians in a recently opened play, panned in a local publication. The same might be said of the film itself.
The motley group hold court in their drab lounge. And Lester leads a rather dreary life which is occasionally narrated by Lane. Other issues pop up, briefly, for Lester. He strikes up conversation with his ex-wife in the street. His grown daughter, Renie (Zoe Perry), visits and offers his favorite pie as an entry into constructive conversation. Lester’s old-fashioned sensibilities peer out from his expressive face, as he is a little overwhelmed by her comments about love, be it the hetero variety or something else, and that she thinks she needs therapy (“it’s not covered, though”).
No Pay, Nudity is a bittersweet days-in-a-life tale. See Lester shuffle. See him filled with envy. See him rail at his friends in a drunken rage and quit, quit, quit. Director Wilkof seems to want his film’s numerous darker, anecdotal episodes to end with some levity, but the drippy music doesn’t help much. In the filmmaker’s desire to make things right for our sad sack, his agent, Leon, informs him that he’s landed a gig in hometown Dayton (“The first actor quit last week, and they fired his replacement yesterday…”). For a few moments, the prodigal son returns, connects with a father who barely recognizes him, finds some deep soul-clensing energy to bring the local crowd and his fellow cast a notion that there is some nobility left in his life, even if he’s playing (again after too many years), the fool in King Lear. Maybe things are turning around.
No Pay, Nudity is very much like filmed theater, and it might actually work better as a play. As light drama, the movie is fairly inert.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).