Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Love in the Time of Money should be required viewing for would-be filmmakers as a lesson in how to botch an independent feature. Distinguished only by a few resourceful performances, writer-director Peter Mattei’s big-screen debut is flawed in both conception and execution. Perhaps the movie’s worst miscalculation is its attempt to recycle an inimitable cinematic classic, a film that still towers above similar remakes by Roger Vadim and Temistocles Lopez.

Mattei claims to have been inspired by Viennese dramatist Arthur Schnitzler’s 1896 play Reigen, 10 interconnected satirical vignettes depicting loveless carnal encounters, starting with a prostitute’s quickie with a foot soldier and coming full circle with a hungover nobleman bedding the same woman. Clearly, however, Mattei’s true model is Max Ophuls’ 1950 film La Ronde, which transformed Schnitzler’s mordant Mobius-strip plot into a wistful meditation on the futility of passion.

The first tip-off is Theodore Shapiro’s opening-credits music, a variation on the Oscar Straus waltz that underscored La Ronde. Another echo of Ophuls can be found in Mattei’s oppressively symmetrical framing of a bedroom scene featuring the plot’s only married couple. As its title suggests, Love in the Time of Money attempts to link its insatiable protagonists with the rapacious economic boom of the screenplay’s ’90s Manhattan setting. But apart from the characters who open and close the film—a woebegone whore and a suicidal Wall Street trader—Mattei distractedly drifts away from this theme, reducing an episodic plotline to incoherence.

In a repellent opening sequence, Eddie (Domenick Lombardozzi), a droopy carpenter, picks up skanky hooker Greta (Vera Farmiga) and

drives her to an abandoned waterfront lot, where he screws her on the hood of his car. Unable to achieve orgasm, he masturbates and then refuses to pay her. Subsequently, Eddie is seduced by Ellen (Jill Hennessy), a neurotic, sexually unfulfilled upper-class housewife, whose art-collector husband, Robert (Malcolm Gets), strays with Martin (Steve Buscemi), a straight, opportunistic painter. Martin then pursues Anna (Rosario Dawson), an art-gallery receptionist, who confesses her infidelity to her boyfriend, Nick (Adrian Grenier).

Rattled by this revelation, Nick encounters middle-aged Joey (Carol Kane), a batty former actress employed as a telephone psychic. Abandoned by Nick, Joey receives a call from desperate Will (Michael Imperioli), who has been dismissed by his financial firm for embezzlement. Will winds up with Greta, completing the narrative’s circle, to which Mattei appends a pretentiously enigmatic coda that calls into question the veracity of all that has preceded it.

Whatever Mattei’s previously demonstrated talents as a playwright and theater director, he has yet to master the craft of filmmaking. At times, his dialogue is thuddingly prosaic. (A sample exchange: Anna: “So you want to draw me? Why?” Martin: “Because you’re beautiful.”) The movie’s nine vignettes, sluggishly paced and arbitrarily composed, appear to have been patched together in the editing room. Shot on digital video and transferred to film stock, Love in the Time of Money’s murky, home-movie images tend to clash with its geometric structure, as does the grainy documentary footage used to connect the fictional sketches. Mattei was particularly unwise to court comparison with Ophuls, one of the screen’s supreme visual stylists.

What little energy the movie possesses is contributed by the ensemble cast, though some of its members—Lombardozzi, Hennessy, and Gets—are suffocated by formulaic roles. Dawson and Grenier, two photogenic young actors, bring a nuanced, lived-in quality to their romantic jousts, and Kane’s quirky, Bette Davis-ish mannerisms enliven her scenes as the eccentric Joey. Hangdog Imperioli labors manfully to add dimensionality to the pathetic Will, but toothy Buscemi, the Tom Cruise of indie movies, is miscast and seems uncomfortable playing an artist-manque Lothario.

Mattei fails to take advantage of the creative freedom afforded by independent filmmaking. Instead of exploring new subject matter and introducing fresh acting talents, Mattei has recycled hackneyed material and populated his movie with performers already familiar from their work in studio releases and on television. Love in the Time of Money offers no fresh insights into the dynamics of passion or wealth. It is notable only for its inadvertent, maladroit manipulation of time: making 86 minutes seem interminable. CP