Yes, “The Avengers” and “Air Force One” were filmed in Cleveland, but the city merely stood in for Stuttgart, Kazakhstan and New York City. And, sure, “Major League” was set in Cleveland, but most of the movie was shot in Milwaukee.
The new feature film, “The Enormity of Life,” is as Cleveland as it comes.
Eric Swinderman, a Cleveland native and a 2005 graduate of Cleveland State University in Cleveland, directed and co-wrote the film with Carmen DeFranco.
It was filmed in Beachwood, Lakewood, Elyria, Lorain, Rocky River, Middleburg Heights and other recognizable Northeast Ohio locations. It features songs from Cleveland-based artists By Light We Loom and John Kalman, and showcases a CLE Clothing Co. T-shirt, worn by one of the key characters, that reads “I Liked Cleveland Before It Was Cool.”
While this dark comedy features a few Hollywood heavyweights, much of the on-screen talent in supporting roles and filling the background behind them is homegrown. All that’s missing from the film is lake-effect snow.
But what makes this film universally relatable and particularly interesting is that everyone in it is broken.
The story revolves around middle-aged Casey Dombrowski (an immediately endearing Breckin Meyer of “Clueless” and “Road Trip”), an emotionally despondent man who is incapable of experiencing joy and finding a place in what he refers to as the “enormity of life.” He is responsible for his mother (a brilliant, silent Anne McEvoy), who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and attempted to kill Casey when he was a child – 11 times. “I’m breathing, but I haven’t felt alive since I don’t know when,” he confides to Jess (a delightful Emily Kinney of “The Walking Dead” and “The Flash”), a young mother and unappreciated waitress who lives across the hall.
Jess has low self-esteem and even less self-confidence, and her precocious young daughter, Jules (a captivating Giselle Eisenberg of “Life in Pieces” and “American Housewife”), suffers from – in her words – a “persistent, negative emotional state with significant impairment in both social and academic functioning.” Jess calls it PTSD, from her daughter living vicariously through the school shootings reported in the news and replayed on the internet. Casey’s older sister (Debra Herzog), Jess’ boss at a greasy-spoon cafe (Bryant Carroll), a kid in a fast food restaurant (Carter Anderson) – essentially everyone given face time in this film – is emotionally stunted in some way.
The awkward, often painful interaction between these damaged characters is what generates the film’s most witty and winning moments. And the potential for healing when Casey, Jess and Jules find each other makes for a great story. But there are some problems with the storytelling.
Meyer, Kinney and Eisenberg bring the nuanced performances needed to carry the many lighthearted and tender moments as well as the stone-cold sober ones that drive the narrative. But some of the portrayals turned in by others come across as stilted, as if the actors were less able to find the same authenticity in the screenplay or deliver its humor with equal subtlety. In their defense, Swinderman tends to write better dialogue for his male characters, so the female actors were at a disadvantage from the get-go.
Showing the world through the eyes of the fragile people who populate this film is a creative challenge that cinematographer Sage O’Bryant and editor Mark Andrew have met and mastered. The slow, purposeful camera movement, the slightly off-center framing, and the lingering moments nicely capture the story’s poignancy and its characters’ mindsets, though at the cost of occasionally slowing the pacing to a crawl. The visuals also manage to rescue the film’s ending, which comes across as if the writer/director was trying to keep the film to under 100 minutes.
But like the roller-coasters at Cedar Point, the film’s moments of calm always lend themselves to something grander and the occasional bumps still result in a good ride worth the price of admission.