For some reason recent film romances have involved imaginary, virtual, disembodied, or otherwise abstract characters. Perhaps “Ruby Sparks” (2012) started the trend, followed by the brilliant “Her” (2013) and this year’s intriguing “The One I Love” and ludicrous “If I Stay.” The stunningly insipid and pretentious “The Man on Her Mind,” Bruce Guthrie and Alan Hruska’s adaptation of the latter’s stage play, should put an end to this upstart mini-genre so we can return to the unchallenging piffle of the good old rom-com.
Nellie (Amy McAllister), a mousy book editor living alone in a Manhattan studio apartment, rebuffs the attempts of her suburb-dwelling sister Janet (Georgia Mackenzie) to hook her up with her new neighbor, Leonard (Samuel James). Nellie has met Leonard already and found him revolting, a reasonable response since James’s mugging performance evokes Jim Carrey in “The Mask.” Nellie, though, is no bargain herself, at least in McAllister’s petulant and grating portrayal. Nonetheless, Leonard has taken a shine to her, and keeps leaving her voice mail messages that are never returned.
Meanwhile, Nellie has been having an affair that is not only secret, but imaginary. In a kind of sitcom version of “Last Tango in Paris,” Jack, a suave lawyer, visits her whenever she wants company. They engage in pseudo-sophisticated small talk, drink wine, and have torrid sex, the logistics of which are left to the viewers’ imagination.
Not so the torturous, stagey dialogue. Guthrie and Hruska try to chop it up into rapid-fire, enjambed, and overlapping exchanges, in hopes that the pseudo-Howard Hawks style might conceal the hackneyed pretentiousness. They edit these long stretches of conversation with reverse angles that ignore the 180 degree rule, the filmmaking fundamental that demands that when two people are talking they remain on the same side of the screen with each cut to avoid confusion. Perhaps the filmmakers intended to enhance the solipsistic nature of the situation, but the effect is the impression of simple incompetence.
To no one’s surprise, Jack is in fact Nellie’s fantasy version of Leonard, whom she rejected because she was attracted to him. And Leonard, as it turns out, has an imaginary Nellie he cavorts with in his vacant suburban digs. Can these two, or rather four since the imaginary pair have more in the way of character than their creators, work out an arrangement? And do we really have to include a second act involving an inherited apartment and jealous sibling Janet’s miserable marriage to her doofus husband?
Inevitably, the story turns Pirandellian, with Nellie and Leonard (he’s a ghost writer) musing on the nature of art and reality with sophomoric gravity. Could somebody be imagining them, too, they wonder? And maybe the whole world? If the latter is true, let’s hope whoever it is has a better imagination than Guthrie and Hruska.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.