Imagine Michael Haneke’s Amour as a gentle, laugh-free dramedy told from the perspective of the 35-year-old child of an ailing Florida couple. That summation is within reach of Michael Maren’s agonizingly dull first feature, A Short History Of Decay. A stagnant portrait of the degradation that envelops those fortunate enough to live so long, the film desperately tries to mine sweetness from the banality of life’s endgame, but the falseness of its bittersweet storytelling only accentuates the misery.
Nathan Fisher (a somnambulant Bryan Greenberg) is a Brooklyn writer with no idea how to make it in America. A dull man, and presumably a dull writer, Nathan struggles to commit to any one of his projects, bouncing between a novel and a play without ever really threatening to finish either one. Emboldened by the impending publication of her own novel, Nathan’s callous girlfriend Erika (Emmanuelle Chriqui) dumps him in the film’s first scene; Nathan tells her he’s seeing a movie at the Angelika, and Erika tells him she’s seeing a literary agent. (“I’m not looking for representation, I’m looking for a relationship.”)
Nathan barely has time to process the news before his brother (Benjamin King) calls to say their father has suffered a stroke. Nathan hops on the next flight to Florida (JetBlue gets a bizarre shoutout), where he moves into his parents’ house for an indefinite period. His dad has impaired motor function, his mom has steadily advancing Alzheimer’s, and he has very little purpose in life beyond easing their slow shuffle toward the grave.
While the title explicitly refers to the deterioration of the mind and body, A Short History Of Decay is also about the decay of relationships, the decay of the dreams we stubbornly set for ourselves, and the decay of production standards. The flurry of random, “stolen” street footage that opens the movie immediately raises a red flag, locating the movie in New York City in the laziest way possible while effectively (and accurately) anticipating the degree of Maren’s attention to form. A shapeless mass of stillborn two-shots and close-ups that are alternately enervated by hollow sound design and obliterated by insufferably instructive pop songs—there are three dreadful music cues in the first 10 minutes alone—A Short History Of Decay plays like the result of a novice filmmaker inexplicably sacrificing a valuable personal story to a medium that’s resisting him at every turn.
Maren is an accomplished author—his book The Road To Hell is a journalistic account of the role of foreign aid to Somalia—and the press notes suggest that this project is somewhat autobiographical in nature. But his ineptitude as a director makes A Short History Of Decay feel like he’s limply offering his experiences to the cinema, rather than using its tools to articulate them dramatically. Maren seems unusually beholden to the conventions of poignant indie stories about growth and resignation, aspiring to the likes of Little Miss Sunshine, but coming off as wan where more satisfying examples of the genre are wistful.
In part, this is because the characterizations are so thin that viewers might actually yearn for a little quirk to liven things up. Nathan is an empty vessel with a sweet smile, while Erika is a shrew destined for comeuppance. Linda Lavin does what she can to add a note of unpredictability to the role of Nathan’s mother, but roughly 99.9 percent of her dialogue exists to underscore her dementia—it’s hard to remember a more trite depiction of clinical senility. Character actor Harris Yulin is likewise forced to overcome a stock character (the coarse, horny old man), impressively imbuing the role of Nathan’s father with a depth of feeling that elevates the script while simultaneously exposing its poverties. On the other hand, nothing makes the film look worse than the clip of Stanley Donen’s Charade that Nathan watches in his parents’ guest room, a disastrous misuse of the public domain.
It seems like every movie about a recently single character moving back in with the parents has to buoy itself with a romantic subplot, but A Short History Of Decay ambitiously opts for an isosceles love triangle, pairing Nathan with two equally obvious women who exist for no other reason than to help him reassess his priorities. The film offers the timeless battle between the staggeringly beautiful French girl (Rebecca Dayan) and the modest, almost folksy manicurist with a heart of gold (Kathleen Rose Perkins). One of them has a David Foster Wallace novel, the other has a soul. Only in the movies is that such a one-sided fight.
A Short History Of Decay only shows signs of life when Nathan is paired up with his older brother, who’s going through his own domestic crisis. Alone, each character is insufferably stale, but together, their fraternal dynamic sparks an authentic bond; much of the movie is about how “being there” for someone often takes the form of driving them to errands and appointments when they can’t drive themselves, and the contrast provided by Nathan’s relationship with Jack helps put that into perspective. Unfortunately, that element is dissolved into a film so flat and form-fitting that it wrings the reality out of life’s most tragic inevitabilities, leaving behind something barely recognizable as human. Erika bluntly tells Nathan, “Your dad had a stroke, your mom has Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t get any better,” but A Short History Of Decay counters that getting worse doesn’t have to be that bad. If only it made a remotely believable case.