Laying Low: The Treatment?s leads are all thumbs romantically.
Laying Low: The Treatment?s leads are all thumbs romantically.

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One of Woody Allen’s favorite stunts is conjuring up an authority-figure cameo, like the imaginary Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam or the real Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. The Treatment, which is based on Daniel Menaker’s novel but closely follows the template of Allen’s early films, doesn’t copy that trick exactly. Its resident authority is not the real Sigmund Freud but the self-proclaimed “last great Freudian,” a Vienna by way of Buenos Aires martinet named Dr. Ernesto Morales (Ian Holm). In regular if seemingly unproductive sessions, Morales is advising a neurotic prep-school English teacher, Jake Singer (Chris Eigeman), about his quandaries, especially his nonexistent love life. Morales is not the only reason that Jake has woman problems, but the shrink is definitely not part of the solution.

A Manhattan-like notion of a Manhattanite, Singer has an Allen-esque outlook, an Allen-esque delivery, an Allen-esque surname, and lives in an Allen-esque world. That means it’s all white, except for the school’s African-American basketball star, Walter (Lindsay Johnson), an angry scholarship student who Jake tries to help. Jake serves as the basketball team’s statistician, thus demonstrating his regular-guyness, and defends Chekhov and Camus to his students, the offspring of rich businessmen who tell their kids that reading fiction is a waste of time. Smarter and wittier than everyone around him, yet frustrated and unfulfilled, Jake is a classic sort of outsider. What sort? Just in case that isn’t obvious, John Zorn’s score draws heavily on klezmer music.

Jake’s life suddenly changes when he’s invited to give a talk at a party hosted by lovely and lovable Allegra Marshall (X-Men’s Famke Janssen), whose 8-year-old son attends the school where Jake teaches. Allegra’s husband recently died, a shock that left her with lots of money and two adopted children, the younger of whom is still under the supervision of the adoption agency. She needs a husband in order to keep the little girl, whose birth mother was promised a two-parent family. Jake is happy to volunteer for the role, but while Allegra begins an impassioned fling with him, she’s not sure he’s a long-term candidate. Neither is Jake’s long-widowed father, a gruff doctor played by Harris Yulin. The third skeptic of Jake’s and Allegra’s permanent prospects is Morales, who begins materializing in unexpected places, including bathrooms and closets, to advise a disconcerted Jake.

The Treatment, the feature debut of documentarian Oren Rudavsky, might have worked better without this device. But then Morales would be a problematic character even if he never appeared outside his office. An outdated comic archetype of a psychoanalyst, he’s fixated on how the body reveals the soul. After Jake reports on sex with Allegra, Morales demands to know, “Did she clee-max?” And when Jake, nervous about public speaking, has a bout of diarrhea, Morales informs him that it’s a case of “crying through your asshole.” Hopefully this sort of commentary is fully covered by health insurance and isn’t costing Jake a penny.

Once a stalwart player in Whit Stillman’s latter-day drawing-room comedies, Eigeman has softened, in both appearance and demeanor, since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. When he makes a crucial mistake in his relationship with Allegra, his bewilderment is believable and sympathetic. Janssen is also engaging, although in a role (like most of hers) that doesn’t ask her to do much. It’s Holm, a marvelous actor, who goes wrong. He fails to find anything believably human in Morales, whose advice is as dubious as his accent. Perhaps this film, which is conceptually wobbly and technically merely functional, should have been set some 30 years ago, back when Woody was still funny and Freudians still barked rudely at their patients. Despite moments of freshness, The Treatment plays like something from the Freudian-comedy archives.