For a while, somewhere in the late second act, Sam’s Song is really good. It has its characters established and it seems like it’s going to take an interesting path getting to its inevitable plot point. The film is mostly about Jennifer Warren, who has a husband (Jarred Mickey) apparently eager to philander; they’re wealthy, white and woebegone. But neither of them are the titular character. Into this almost Virginia Woolf mix comes old college buddy Robert De Niro (white, but not wealthy or woebegone). Maybe De Niro acts as the catalyst, bringing succubus Terrayne Crawford into the mix, but maybe not. It’s questionable, if one were to chart everything out (yes, Crawford and De Niro do become romantically entangled, bringing her into his hosts’ house, but she meets De Niro at a party there anyway).
Instead of turgid melodrama, director Leondopoulos treats it as a pseudo-New Wave picture. Gershon Kingsley’s music is there to reveal the characters’ turmoil, while Leondopoulos starts most shots in long shot, cutting close for the forced existential conversations. Where Leondopoulos almost succeeds–he wrote the film too–is when he gets the four characters together in the house and winds them tight. Warren’s pissed because Crawford passed out in her bed, Warren and Crawford are weirded out by De Niro’s childhood recollection of killing guppies, there’s a lot of potential. So, inevitably, Leondopoulos gets them out of the house, hits fast forward and gets to the finish in about fifteen minutes.
Leondopoulos lifts a lot from better directors–there’s a long sequence with De Niro and Crawford straight out of Blow Up–but he’s got a fine style. The music’s off, but his use of sound is good. A big problem is the acting, specifically his direction of it and the editing of it. He seems to think it’s cute to cut into conversations after a question has been asked (it’s like “Jeopardy!,” the viewer gets to figure out the question from the response). He cuts from quiet scenes to conversations–there’s one really terrible scene, in a night club or somewhere, with people dancing to music, where it goes to interior music to show Warren’s anguish, then cuts to some close-ups of her for dialogue. The concept’s clear, but the execution fails.
Of the actors, it’s hard to say who fares best. I’m tempted to say Mickey, but only because I don’t have anything else to compare his performance with. Crawford is bad, no doubt, but with Warren and De Niro, both of whom have been great under different directors… it’s hard to say. Warren has some good moments, but she’s literally not ready for her close-ups. Whenever she’s alone in the frame, it’s like she’s delivering lines to a wall. De Niro–watching him so young is somewhat interesting, especially the ticks he’s developing even then–is okay. Without the context of his later career, it’d be uninteresting, sure, but it’s one of the few times I’ve ever seen De Niro play some guy. He’s also playing some guy obsessed with movies–an indie staple, but a De Niro singularity (I think).
Sam’s Song is one of those frustrating films where it seems like they figure out what they’re doing–the awkward opening is actually building to something organic–then it all falls apart. Thanks to the solid section, it’s better than the beginning would suggest… but as it ended, I found myself wishing someone would remake it.
Written and directed by Jordan Leondopoulos; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Arline Garson; music by Gershon Kingsley; produced by Christopher C. Dewey; released by Cannon Film Distributors.
Starring Robert De Niro (Sam Nicoletti), Jennifer Warren (Erica), Jarred Mickey (Andrew), Terrayne Crawford (Carol), Martin J. Kelley (Mitch), Phyllis Black (Marge) and Viva (Girl with the Hourglass).