Amber Benson's 'Lovers, Liars & Lunatics' (2006)

Amber Benson's second film Lovers, Liars & Lunatics shows a lot of growth in her skills as both a director and screenwriter when comparing it to 2002's Chance, her first movie that Benson has described as her film school experience. Filmed on digital video and featuring not just a few actors, wardrobe, and locations from Benson's TV alma mater Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Chance does feel like Benson's head-first dive into filmmaking. The film has a very homemade quality, which comes with both its charms and its drawbacks.

While Lovers, Liars & Lunatics is definitely still a "family" affair, the film has a much more polished veneer, due in no small part to it being shot on film rather than DV. 'Lovers, Liars, and Lunatics' coverBut Benson definitely seems more confident in her direction as well. I was pleased to see wider shots (some of the close-ups in Chance are a bit claustrophobic) and Benson uses much more camera movement to good effect. One of the shots really bugs me though. When Elaine keeps turning off Paddy's basketball game, the TV isn't actually in frame so Elaine has to walk in and out of frame to switch off the game, which seems unnatural. My only guess at why Elaine isn't standing next to the TV, which would make more sense given that she turns it off at least 3 times, is that the filmmakers couldn't afford to purchase a clip to show on the TV. Anyway, the pacing also feels a lot more even, which is possibly due to the script as well.

Even though the story takes a little while to get going, the screenplay has a lot more depth and complexity. While Chance is a pretty standard love story, Lovers, Liars & Lunatics doesn't follow any formulas I've seen. I think it's best described as a dark screwball comedy/caper movie, and it has a bit of an old-Hollywood feel since it takes place in pretty much one location. The comedy feels a lot more natural, both coming out of and forming character. And Lovers, Liars & Lunatics is funny. I snicker out loud at least four or five times whenever I watch it, which is unusual for me with repeat viewings. However, the characters feel a little generic. I think that Benson gets away with some genericalness (an actual word!) because of the screwy things going on, but I would have liked to have seen some more character moments to flesh out these individuals further. But the screenplay does do a good job at keeping almost all of the characters busy with their own little subplots. I'm also a little confused by the Viagra subplot. Paddy does take a couple, right? But he doesn't mention having an incurable erection anytime during the course of the film (thank goodness). Are we supposed to think that the Viagra caused his heart attack? It looks like Elaine puts the pills in a vitamin bottle, so I don't think she replaces his heart medication, but Viagra does list "severe hypotension" and "myocardial infarction" as possible side effects.

While all of the performances are solid, Christine Estabrook and Benson are the standouts. I can't figure out why I don't see Estabrook on TV all the time. From what I've seen of her in Benson's films, she has a gift at being funny, ridiculous even, and yet still very human and very real. She kills me every time when she tries to break a window using a toilet brush. As ditzy, sweet-natured Justine, Benson gives some of the best line deliveries in the film, particularly on lines like "Louis, look at the kitty. He's so fat," and "Harlequin romance isn't trash. It's literature." Those lines don't read like they would be particularly amusing, but Benson makes them laugh-out-loud funny. Cole Williams, Benson's co-star in Race You to the Bottom, has a fairly small part here as Gunner, but he always makes me snicker at his sleazy delivery of, "Sally? Baby, it's me." Besides Estabrook, Rayder Woods is the only other carry over from Benson's first film, and James Charles Leary, who played lovable demon Clem on Buffy, is the sole representative of the Whedon-verse.

I find the portrayals of masculinity in this film interesting because three of the main male characters are very much the same. Each character has its own flavor, but Paddy, Louis, and Gunner essentially perform their masculinity the same way. All three are aggressive, controlling, and belittling to women they're not trying to sleep with. Julian, the only male character who doesn't fit that description, has been labeled gay because he performs his masculinity in a way that the other men do not recognize. But by the end of the film even Julian resorts to aggression, punching his oppressive brother. When Paddy and Elaine investigate a noise that they hear in the night, Paddy tells Elaine that he is scared too, and Elaine then says she thought men didn't get scared. I find that exchange interesting because as well as hinting at why Paddy might feel dissatisfied with his marriage, namely that Elaine places expectations for him that he cannot meet, that bit of dialogue obviously reflects a dominant construction of masculinity in popular culture. I won't venture so far to say that Benson intends to comment on the construction and reinforcement of gender roles with this film, but I find it interesting that Louis, Paddy, and Gunner embody the arguable results of that definition of masculinity.
Christine Estabrook in 'Lovers, Liars, & Lunatics'
As with Chance, sex and how it functions in different relationships is prominent throughout the film. In particular, the script explores sex intertwined with manipulation. Gloria uses sex to manipulate Paddy so that she can take his money, and Paddy in turn withholds sex from Elaine. Gunner plies Sally with alcohol and falsehoods ("You can't get pregnant on the first time") to coax her into letting him take her virginity. And in regards to Louis and Justine's relationship, Louis seems to use sex to maintain control over Justine. It certainly appears to be the only time when Louis isn't belittling Justine, and he definitely uses sex to control her body, slapping her behind, and not in a friendly way, as she climbs out of a doggie door. When Louis tries to persuade Elaine to give him money, the first tactic he tries is sex. With the exception of Gloria, women are the victims of sexual manipulation here. Elaine becomes a victim seemingly because she cares about her family (awful!), Justine because she directly communicates her sexual desires (scandalous!), and Sally because she just seems confused (stupid ineffectual sex education!).

All of the main characters seem restrained in some way from really connecting with each other. The Raye Family spends the bulk of the film tied to chairs, but even before the break-in they seem separated, sheltered (or in Julian's case more like confined) in their respective rooms. Even Paddy and Elaine in their shared bed are separated by Elaine's earplugs. During the course of the robbery, Louis even separates them into different rooms because they keep fighting with each other. I also like the image of both Paddy and Gunner walking with chairs tied to their backs, hauling around what prevents them from connecting with their family. With Louis and Justine, their ski masks seem to represent a barrier in their relationship. When they have their tryst in the Rayes' kitchen, Louis has his mask pushed up so that his face is visible but Justine keeps hers on, suggesting that Justine can see all of Louis while he perhaps doesn't see Justine for who she is outside the context of their sexual relationship.

The ending gets a little crazy and, for a comedy, generates a pretty high body count, which includes Benson's character. (Amber. We don't like to see you get shot. We don't like to see you die in general, but we especially don't like to see you get shot. Please stop doing that.) But the ending definitely feels earned by the preceding minutes of the film and somehow strangely appropriate even though it may not resolve everything enough to some people's liking. Overall, I think Lovers, Liars & Lunatics is pretty entertaining and a solid sophomore film from Benson.
Amber Benson & Michael Muhney in 'Lovers, Liars, & Lunatics'