Movie Review: “Love After Love” ponders the ripple effects of losing a loved one

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It varies from family to family, the one member everybody calls “the rock,” “the glue” that seems to hold them all together.

And when that glue is gone, it can seem as if gravity itself has failed. Members spin off, aimlessly, lose their footing. Every flaw they kept under wraps can show itself, every one of those flaws a new stress on their coherence as a group. It all stops making sense.

“Love After Love” is a quietly distressing disintegration, a film full of grief unspoken, but showing in every member of a family’s loss of footing, responsibility and sanity after the death of a patriarch. Co-writer/director Russell Harbaugh has created a chamber tragedy, intimate in its dimensions, devastating in the damage we see spiral out of that one death.

It opens with a woman (Andie MacDowell) questioning a man, Nick (Chris O’Dowd) about his state of happiness. He shrugs.

“I mean, what’s ‘happy,’ really? It’s so arbitrary.”

His relationship, with the smart and beautiful Rebecca (Juliet Rylance)?

She “validates how I feel about the world.”

And the woman doing the questioning, who it turns out, is Nick’s mother?

“You can’t always be happy.”

As they head back outdoors to the extended family gathering, the reasons for the philosophical musings become obvious. For all the randy, frank talk about the difference between “an open marriage” and just “swingers,” there’s a pall hanging over the drinking and laughter. The brother who drinks too much (James Adomian), the marriage ( Francesca Faridany) that strains, other considerations fall aside. Dad (Gareth Williams) can barely speak above a hoarse whisper. We can guess what’s going on.

Harbaugh’s film skips forward to the world that father Glenn’s death has created. Brother Chris (Adomian) and wife Karen (Faridany) are in trouble. Mother Suzanne, a college drama teacher and costumer, has taken on a brittle intolerance of her students and colleagues.

And Nick, a book editor, has utterly lost his way. His acting the bounder included sex with a young actress (Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel) in the back of his Volvo at the orchard behind his parents’ house, and now Rebecca is no more.

She is “a woman of consequence,” a more unfiltered Mom snaps. Rebecca was challenging and her mere presence as Nick’s BS detector is missed. There’s nobody around to point out how self-absorbed and self-destructive he can be, no one to endure his hypocritical tirades, lashing out at Rebecca when the viewer knows he’s the heel here.

Chris may drunkenly tell Nick “You’re the GOOD one,” but his coping mechanisms seem less self-destructive. An aimless unpublished “writer,” he channels his pain into a stand-up act that’s both icy and bracing (Adomian is a comic writer, actor and stand-up).

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Nick? He’s lashing out, getting drunk, creating scenes at parties, threatening to break up other relationships, grasping at anything and anyone he thinks can give him back his footing — even Rebecca.

Harbaugh is said to have had his cast watch John Cassavetes dramas (“Love Streams,” “A Woman Under the Influence”) as a way of prepping to play these characters. That’s the tone he wanted — people deflated by life and loss, their sharp edges showing.

O’Dowd shows us a side we’ve never seen before, throwing around dramatic weight only hinted at in a mostly-comic film career. Rylance imbues her every scene with a gravitas that underscores what Suzanne has said of her — a woman “of consequence.”

And the ever-underrated MacDowell gives one of her finest dramatic turns, playing a woman who is supposed to replace her husband as “the rock” at the center of this clan, but so devastated and without bearings that she dates/sleeps around inappropriately and is of no help to her “boys,” as she has no moral high ground to stand upon.

“Love After Love” isn’t a happy tale or even one with an ending. Like Cassavetes, Harbaugh was going for doubt, and for the most part, he succeeds. It’s the uncertainty that drives the fear that motivates every character, the realization of mortality that has one and all struggling to “get on with it,” this business of adult life that almost all who knew him were able to postpone while Dad was still around.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual situations, alcohol abuse, profanity, violence

Cast: Andie MacDowell, Chris O’Dowd,  Dree Hemingway, Juliet Rylance, James Adomian

Credits:Directed by Russell Harbaugh, script by Russell Harbaugh and Eric Mendelsohn. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:31

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