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5 to 7

I was not expecting to write a review this weekend. When I found out that this Friday’s only wide release was a Nicholas Sparks borefest, I was perfectly content to rest up for a while. But then I heard about a very different romantic drama that just hit my local arthouse, complete with a decent critical reception and a spectacular cast. How could I pass up such an intriguing alternative?

5 to 7 tells the story of Brian Bloom (Anton Yelchin), a struggling young unpublished writer with enough rejection letters to wallpaper his apartment. Of course, he’s still somehow able to afford an apartment in New York City without a roommate, but I digress. Our female lead is Arielle, played by Berenice Marlohe (best known to American audiences as the thoroughly useless Bond girl of Skyfall). She’s a 33-year-old French woman who used to be a model. Arielle meets Brian on a purely chance encounter and they hit it off famously. But of course there’s a catch: Arielle is married to a French ambassador (Valery, played by Lambert Wilson) and they have two kids together.

So you’d think that this is going to be a marital infidelity drama. Big deal, right? We’ve seen a million of these movies before. But not like this.

See, Valery has a mistress of his own (Jane, played by Olivia Thirlby) and Arielle doesn’t begrudge that one bit. It’s sort of an open marriage, but one that’s built on a very delicate framework of rules. Perhaps the most prominent rule is that any extramarital activities must take place between the hours of 5 and 7 in the evening. Why that particular time frame? Mostly because it exists in that vague sort of grey area between leaving work and going home. Anyone could come home at 7 pm with the excuse of being caught in rush hour traffic, and who could argue?

So Brian and Arielle start meeting for two hours every evening. Sometimes they go out drinking, sometimes they tour the local museums (with Arielle offering strangely morbid interpretations of the art on display), and sometimes they meet for hot sex in a four-star hotel room. And just when Brian starts banging an older, wealthy, gorgeous French ex-model — with the full blessing of her husband, no less — he gets introduced to so many of Arielle’s friends and connections within the NYC elite and his writing career takes off like wildfire. You can begin to see some problems with this plot.

You could argue that there is a very strong Gary Stu/wish fulfillment component to the character of Brian, and it would be tough to disagree. Everything is simply handed to Brian through the first two acts, which means that there are huge stretches of screen time with very little in the way of conflict. For any other film, that would be damning. But this film gets away with it because there’s so much more going on.

To start with, there’s the multicultural aspect. The French are quite famously more laissez-faire about matters of love, sex, and romance than we Americans. Brian was raised to think of marital infidelity as a terrible act, and adapting to Arielle’s mindset takes a very long time for him. Hell, I don’t think he ever gets entirely comfortable with it. Brian’s conflict is purely internal, as he tries to set aside his own monogamous desires for the sake of preserving this wonderful thing he has with Arielle. It’s all about a character who tries to broaden his mind with regards to the messy and illogical nature of love, which brings me to the second point.

(Side note: I find it amusing that Anton Yelchin — quite overtly a Russian native, as the name would suggest — was cast as the American side of a bicultural romance. And then, after Like Crazy, he did it again here.)

The institution of marriage is changing. It’s been in constant flux to varying degrees ever since we crawled out of the slime. That’s a very hot topic right now, so any statements on the subject would be both timely and relevant. And that goes double for these statements in particular.

Gay marriage is the popular go-to example for how matrimony is different in the modern day, but we pretty much have gay marriage figured out by now. A few trifling issues of legality and bigotry aside, we at least know what gay marriage is, how it works, and why it happens. But polyamory is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. It’s not something that gets nearly as much mainstream discussion, and it’s still widely considered varying degrees of taboo. Moreoever, it’s difficult enough for two people to fall in love, developing chemistry and trust as they establish boundaries and get a feel for what they’re comfortable with when they’re together. All of that becomes exponentially more difficult with each person who gets involved.

Which brings us back to Brian. And Arielle, and Valery, and Jane. Four different people, all potentially with their own wants and needs. I can’t begin to stress enough just how fragile their whole arrangement is, and the entire thing could come crushing down if any one of them ever thought to break the rules. And remember, we’re dealing with people in love, which is inherently unstable. It’s entirely possible that one or more of them could be so overcome with passion that they do something stupid at a pivotal moment and ruin things for everyone, leaving a pile of broken hearts behind.

Thus we have the third major pillar of the story: The fact that Brian knows damn well this is all too good to last. He knows as well as we do that one way or another, somebody in all of this is eventually going to get hurt. And there’s no telling what will happen to his love life or his career when everything finally comes to an end. Yet Brian can’t bring himself to do anything but keep the affair going and try to delay the inevitable for as long as he can.

Yet this raises another interesting question: Whether all these wonderful times of passion and romance will be worth the pain to follow. After all, if life is just a series of moments, isn’t it worth doing what feels right and brings joy in that moment?

There are a lot of pros and cons to be found here, and pretty much all of them boil down to writer/director Victor Levin. For those who don’t know him, Levin is primarily known for his TV work, co-exec producing “Mad About You” before moving on to help exec produce “Mad Men.” He’s also done a lot of TV writing in the past, and his only prior film credits were for such screenplays as Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and My Sassy Girl. This is his feature directorial debut.

I was amazed to learn that Levin wasn’t born in France, because this whole film has a distinctly French feel to it. Whole scenes are positively dripping in melodrama, and Levin tends to lean hard on pretentious voice-overs and narrative devices. My favorite example is the use of bench plaques in Central Park (you know, the ones with dedications to loved ones), which are called “the best writing in New York” within the opening minutes. The film then uses shots of the bench plaques to transition between scenes. The first time this happens, it’s kinda cute. By the umpteenth time this happens, it gets very annoying and stupid.

Anyway, Levin wasn’t born in France; he was born in New York City. And I absolutely believe that, because his treatment of Manhattan is simply breathtaking. In terms of cinematography and story treatment, the city is made a character unto itself in this picture. Hardly a unique thing, I know (after all, Woody Allen has so famously made a career out of filming love letters to NYC), but it’s still a beauty to watch.

Far more importantly, the movie gets away with its prominent flaws because Levin’s strengths are that damn good. For all my complaining about the melodramatic scenes and the romcom cliches, the dialogue pops right off the page. We’ve got some whip-smart exchanges between characters, and pretty much every joke is good for an audible laugh.

More importantly, the central romance between Brian and Arielle absolutely works. I could never have guessed that Anton Yelchin and Berenice Marlohe would have had such chemistry, but they completely sold me on every peak and valley that their characters went through. Then we have Olivia Thirlby as her typical upbeat self, and Lambert Wilson makes a suitably charismatic impression. Even better, Glenn Close and Frank Langella provide some delightful comic relief as Brian’s bickering, overbearing, old-fashioned Jewish parents. Eric Stoltz also deserves a mention, even though he only gets one scene as a book publisher.

The point being that Levin is an ace at casting and directing his actors. Close and Langella are probably the best cases in point: A lesser director might have gone overboard with the Jewish stereotypes, and the film does flirt with that line a lot. Yet Levin, Close, and Langella are always cautious enough to stay away from full-on self-parody, reeling the Jewish humor back just enough that we can see these characters as people instead of punchlines.

All told, I’m giving 5 to 7 a pass. It has some serious problems with melodrama, there’s a lot of pretentious voice-over, and the wish-fulfillment aspect is very difficult to ignore. With all of that said, it’s way too rare to see a romantic dramedy that actually has poignant romance, effective character drama, and jokes that are laugh-out-loud comical. The cast is sterling, the characters are charming, and the dialogue is simply masterful. And of course, the novel thematic content with regards to polyamory is a welcome change of pace.

The movie may not work 100 percent of the time, but when it’s on point, it’s on fire. Not only is this a promising directorial debut, but it’s a romance that was made with some degree of care and intelligence, and not as some lazy four-quadrant cash-in. We need more of that. We very badly need more of that.

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