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Flannel Pajamas is all about the red herrings that get ignored when a seemingly fabulous new relationship begins. The New York couple in this drama by writer-director Jeff Lipsky hit it off on a blind date and swooningly hasten to their wedding. He can save her from her bathtub-in-the-living-room apartment and says he wants to protect her; she can, uh, say that she loves him a lot, especially when he’s paying her bills. He doesn’t like her best friend and some of her family, but so what? They have luv—which, some allege, is all you need.
Except when it isn’t, of course. And especially when it’s unclear to an observer what draws the pair together in the first place. From the opening scene that shows the fateful first date, Stuart (Justin Kirk) comes off as slick and smarmy, while Nicole (Julianne Nicholson) seems kind of dim. Other characters crowd the setup—it’s a double date, and Stuart’s brother and Nicole’s morally scarlet best friend happen by—so the viewer is privy to only one of their exchanges before they’re free to declare that they like each other. Stuart works as a theater marketer, which, as he nearly admits, seems to mean professional liar: He does whatever it takes to create buzz, even if it means inventing actor bios or tailoring a show’s backstory to move rubes to buy tickets. You expect the fresh-faced Nicole, who initially says she doesn’t understand what exactly he does, to be put off. Instead she says, “That’s so smart!”
If you manage to suspend disbelief, though, and buy that something did in fact inspire them to start drooling “I love you”s all over each other, Flannel Pajamas can be an engrossing train wreck. (At 124 minutes, however, it’s at times a sluggish one.) Lipsky makes the movie feel like a play, a collection of before-and-after scenes from a marriage that are largely concise in displaying happiness or trouble, with crisp blackouts and set changes in between. So you see, for example, the moment that Stuart suggests Nicole move in with him. And, later, Nicole’s resentment when Stuart pushes her to undress in front of the windows of their new high-rise apartment after she’s pleaded that she’s too shy. Throughout, she’s generally the sensitive and emotionally open one, while he’s practical and prone to changing the subject whenever a conversation turns difficult.
The couple’s attraction seems merely dialogue-deep, and Lipsky’s talky script has other shortcomings. (Kirk bears partial responsibility for making Stuart oily from the very beginning. But really, wouldn’t any but the most desperate woman run when a guy trots out lines such as, “Do you want a puppy? All I can offer you is my heart” right after they meet?) Auxiliary characters, such as Stuart’s unstable brother, Jordan (Jamie Harrold), or the members of Nicole’s family whom Stuart doesn’t like, are also given jobs but little to no development, making many plot turns seem like they arrive out of nowhere.
But thanks to Nicholson, many of the couple’s awkwardly intimate scenes feel organic and much more realistic than the average romantic portrait. She finds nuances in Nicole that keep her from becoming unsympathetic—childish is worlds away from childlike—and Nicholson paints her character as warm, trusting, and vulnerable instead of irritatingly naive. And though Kirk’s Stuart is easy to dislike at the beginning of the relationship, he’s that much easier to hate and, once things sour, feel (slightly) sorry for. Kirk also shares a terrific scene with Rebecca Schull, who plays Nicole’s mother. As the camera nearly imperceptively circles around them, the two have a showdown when Nicole briefly ends up in the hospital. Schull displays a clenched, withering smile as her character tells her son-in-law that she never liked him and how bad he is for Nicole. It’s an extremely effective verbal slap in the face. And considering the superficial dancing that came before it, the conversation is a moment to cheer—both for Mom and the film itself.