You know it’s bad news when you begin a film with the thought “why would I ever care about these people? Under what circumstances would their silly, first world personae be interesting or sympathetic to me? As the subjects of a sick, Tuskegee-like experiment? On the verge of attack by sharks? In a post-apocalyptic setting?” Still, however dubious this out-of-the-gate lack of sympathy might be, there’s always a chance for a film to make good. An optimist such as I might say to themselves, “I’ll just give it a try. Maybe it’s not what it seems–maybe it’s not just about white people with fancy jobs fucking each other. Maybe there will be a shark attack.” Yet as I sat watching Lena Dunham and Ry Russo-Young‘s co-scripted Nobody Walks, waiting patiently for any number of horrible things to befall the film’s characters, I realized soon enough that none ever would, leaving me, the viewer, with nothing but a drafty plot and a set of characters so dimensionless that even their names even ring false. So it is with Martine, the centerpiece of Nobody Walks, a 24-year-old, New York-based artist visiting LA (where NOBODY walks! except prostitutes) to do soundwork on a conceptual film for her art show, played by Olivia Thrilby and sporting the squirrliest haircut in recent memory. The first things you’re forced to wonder about Martine are a) why does she not know her hair is terrible and b) from what kind of a ridiculous commune must she have sprung to have been named ‘Martine’? But of course, it’s the commune of Lena Dunham’s mind, a mind whose special brand of output is in danger of losing its charm overnight.
At this point, let me say that I find Dunham’s work excellent up to this point (the point of Nobody Walks) and that I also have no idea how much she was involved in the script, whether hers was more, less, or equal to the involvement of director Ry Russo-Young. Far be it from me to suggest that Dunham’s work on Tiny Furniture and Girls has been anything less than brilliant: famously, and to everyone’s bitter chagrin, it hasn’t. But the problem of Nobody Walks has nothing to do with Dunham’s talent: it’s the basic problem of what an artist has to do when their material runs out. Dunham’s material has tended to revolve around the theme of being young, broke(ish) and humiliated in New York, based on her own experience of that pervasive but still quite specific socio-economic identity. When no one else was somehow willing or able to depict the plight of the struggling graduate in a bad economy, Dunham was there, having sex in a pipe in the street and filming it. The problem with this area of expertise is that, at a certain point, an artist’s success tends to exclude them from it. It’s hard to imagine Dunham being able to milk that much more material out of the 2 or so years in which she actually inhabited this identity, toiling away on her first film with only her parents’ Tribeca flat and 50 grand to sustain her vision, before hitting the jackpot with her HBO series and living in what one has to assume are at least slightly less humiliating circumstances. The struggle, in any case, did not last very long, and post-Girls work will probably reflect, for an artist of such autobiographical leanings as Dunham, less of her old preoccupations and more of her current reality, a reality which no one but Lena Dunham lives.
This is where characters like the improbably-named Martine, and films like the lamentable Nobody Walks come in: at the intersection of “I now have a platform from which to broadcast my painful, relatable past!” and “My highly privileged platform has become my material”. It’s a tricky place for a film to live; especially a film already as aimless as Nobody Walks, which, boiled down, is basically about people fucking who they shouldn’t, and thus roughly the same as every other film ever made.
That said, the cast is weirdly good, if the hair is not. Olivia Thrilby, in spite of the distracting mushroom cut, hands in a good performance. John Krasinski, whose face no one ever really needs to look at again, is believably pathetic as a delusional, 40-something-and-married lover of Martine. Rosemarie DeWitt is always Rosemarie DeWitt, for which we are eternally grateful, and Justin Kirk, in a rare, unfuckable performance, plays a man suffering from too much hair product. One of his scenes, however, is enough to justify his presence there. Describing the problems of his hack Hollywood lifestyle to his therapist (DeWitt), Kirk says something about how some women are too smart to fuck well, a moment which makes one sorely wish that there existed not only the two impoverished categories of fantasy and realism to work within, but another, hybrid, Kaufmanesque genre on hand in which characters could act, however improbably, in the way we wish they did and probably should in real life but never, ever do. Here, this would have looked like DeWitt roundhouse kicking her client in the face and walking out. Instead, she smiles a smile of depressed understanding. But fantasy is not Dunham’s strong suit: as a chronicler of urban humiliation, she is always good at portraying the reality of the situation when it comes to male-female interactions, especially female calmness in the face of male condescension and/or idiocy. It would be nice if the rest of the film, or even the rest of the Kirk-DeWitt interaction, retained a bit of this depressing realism, but alas, it does not, forsaking the possibility of being about something to become just another story about sex.