Laura Terruso took to the stage at AFI Fest 2017 to introduce her directorial debut Fits and Starts. As she cautiously walked up the platform, Terruso motioned towards her feet, which were pocketed in long stemmed heels. According to Terruso, she wanted to look the part at her Hollywood premiere. As she grasped the railing with both hands and descended down the stairs, she left the audience laughing because despite looking the part, Terruso’s entrance was anything but Hollywood. But her entrance, whether it was her intention or not, ran parallel with her film.
Fits and Starts centers on two writers in New York City who happen to be married. Jennifer (Greta Lee), known in the literary world as J.M. Lee, is an acclaimed author who has managed to survive the dreaded sophomore slump with her latest book — while David (Wyatt Cynac), known to the public as J.M. Lee’s husband, has yet to finalize his first draft. Jennifer is confident that if David tried a little harder to fit into the literary mold, agents would be knocking each other down for a chance to represent him. When the two are invited to a salon in Connecticut, they have no idea that the coming evening will test both their marriage and craft.
At its core, the film begs the question of whether two artists can live under one roof. Movies like The Squid and the Whale (2005), La La Land (2016), and even His Girl Friday (1940) tell us it’s anything but easy. In the beginning, the answer is no. It’s clear that David is peeved by the notion that he’s unrecognizable without his wife standing next to him. But David’s problem is less about his wife’s success, or her gender, and more about her overall lack of interest or support. With book two out on shelves, Jennifer still hasn’t managed to find the time to give David’s draft a final readthrough despite his willingness to read each and every one of Jennifer’s drafts. According to Jennifer, reading David’s work, along with owning a cell phone, would interfere with her creative process, a process that appears to be relentlessly ongoing.
Tensions rise as the couple makes their way to Connecticut. After a run-in with the police, where the two are caught trying to reignite the flame on the side of the road, Jennifer finds out that David forgot the wine at home and they go in search of a liquor store. Their irritations get the best of them and soon their search separates them, leaving David to call the police, the same police that found them on the side of the road and who happen to be two of J.M. Lee’s biggest fans. But when the police tell him to go the salon as planned, the movie noticeably shifts. It’s no longer a story of one creative marriage, but rather David’s journey into the pretentious, self-absorbed, and ridiculous literary world.
That isn’t to say that the second half of the film is any better or worse than the first half, but for fans of Greta Lee, her presence is noticeably missing. David is entirely alone in what feels like another dimension. The salon is filled with caricatures of artists, like a live-action version of a Sylvain Chomet film. From a sculptor wondering aloud if working with deli meat is considered art, to a millennial white man reading an excerpt of his upcoming book about the only white slave during the Civil War, to a foreign opera singer whose lyrics, despite the crowds applause, are made up of insults towards them, David can’t understand why his work is less than the crap he witnesses throughout the night. It isn’t enough for David that these ridiculous people are earning the respect of their peers while he carries on as J.M. Lee’s husband, but as he walks from room to room, each one of them has an uninvited piece of advice: change your name, shave the beard, write something lighter, etc.
A brief history of David and Jennifer’s history is woven throughout the second half of the film. We learn how they met and how, despite David being a professor in Jennifer’s MFA program, she surpassed him in the literary world. When Jennifer sought him out to discuss their craft, David had recently had a piece of fiction published in The New Yorker, a story that he continues to cling to as proof that he is in fact a writer. What is refreshing about Terruso’s film is that throughout it, David never comes across as someone who wants to surpass his wife to reclaim his masculinity, because his masculinity isn’t something he feels he needs to claim or reclaim. His frustrations lie with the literary circle, its exclusivity and absurd rules, and that after X amount years, from the time he and Jennifer met to the present, he hasn’t managed to move forward with his own work.
Like Terruo’s introduction, looking the part and playing by rules doesn’t equate to success. Let the work speak for itself. Fits and Starts is a hilarious interpretation of modern artistry. While the film stumbles into the second half, its heartwarming take on two creatives living under one roof is well worth the watch. Not to mention the excellent performances by Greta Lee and Wyatt Cenac. 3/5
Fits and Starts is now available on digital and VOD.
Image: Fits and Starts
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Samantha Ladwig is a writer and film critic. Her writing has been published by Vice, Birth Movies Death, Bust, Huffington Post, Broadly, IGN Entertainment, and others. More of her work can be found at samanthaladwig.com.