Art, love, travel and mourning find their way into “The Sunlit Night,” a star vehicle that gives Jenny Slate her best showcase since “The Obvious Child.”
This indie film, stuffed with a colorful supporting cast that includes Gillian Anderson, Zach Galifianakis, Jessica Hecht, David Paymer and Alex Sharp, gives us Norwegian scenery and mockably earnest Viking Village re-enactors, a family breaking up, the tyranny of modern art’s gatekeepers and a Jewish Russian Viking funeral.
And whatever crucifixion the film was given at a certain film fest a year or two back, chopping over twenty minutes from it lets it skate by, turning it into a flippantly sweet story that benefits from lovely touches that seem delightfully random in this version.
Savaged at Sundance, saved in a re-edit. There’s your headline.
Slate is Frances, a failing artist from a family of frustrated artists. Dad ( Paymer) is a gifted painter reduced to turning out medical illustrations for textbooks. Mom (Hecht) works in fabric. Only sister Gabby (Elise Kibler) had the good sense to pursue a law degree, and a fiance her embittered dad doesn’t approve of.
Frances deals with one critical/faculty beat-down evaluation too many, breaks up with a rich beau who lives in the Hamptons, gets the news of her sister’s nuptials and her parents’ breakup to top that off, and does what any butterfly floating around the arts does. She takes a residency.
“This is NOT a residency,” reclusive Norwegian artist Nils (Fridtjov Såheim of “The Wave”) reminds her on her arrival in the far north. She was warned, after all. She’d be “painting a barn” for him. And while it’s a traditional barn that he’s turning, inside and out, into an “installation” in yellow, “This is just hard work. You’re going to hate it.”
Frosty Nils kind of insures that. Frances chatters away, he just points to the numbered beams in the barn, and the numbered buckets in various shades of yellow and turns a deaf ear to her waxing lyrical about the scenery, how “magical” it is that she’s “buried in the sun.”
Frances’s curiosity sends her next door to the Viking Village, where Cincinnatti’s own Holgar (Galifianakis) plays the “chief,” in the historic recreation itself and in its cheesy amphitheater video. She is intrigued by the local COOP Mix market, where one woman is stationed inside the dairy case, seemingly all day.
And Frances is struck by the oddball stranger (Alex Sharp of “The Hustle” and “To the Bone”), a seemingly distraught and standoffish young man from The States she keeps running into.
There are places where the film’s re-edit shows, and places where you sense a salvage job that in effect, saves the movie. Short shrift is given to Frances’s break-up, and to her family turmoil. GAnderson plays the mother of the stranger, slinging a Russian accent to boot. Her part is chewy but tiny, and Zach G’s isn’t much bigger.
But good actors get across what we need to know and what we’ll be entertained by. Scenes and gags aren’t around long enough to seem labored, and that suffices.
The heavy use of voice-over, with Frances comparing every face and scene she sees to a painting, might be an after-Sundance “patch,” or it might not. But it’s delightful. It works.
The Viking chief is Van Gogh’s “Dutch postman.” The morose young man, Yasha (Sharp) “looked like Caravaggio’s ‘Boy with a Basket of Fruit.'” Her family’s tiny New York apartment has a Mondrian lay out. “His eyes fall somewhere NOT on the blue spectrum,” and so on.
I just adore Slate, and director David Wnendt, who did that German Hitler comedy “Look Who’s Back,” lets her play to her strengths — vulnerable, lost and sarcastic.
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you,” the grumpy Nils advises. Nils doesn’t know J. Slate.
As much as I agree with the Greatest Editor of them All, David Lean, that pretty much any film can be saved in post production, if the performances are there, I’m not going to go way overboard praising this salvage job. It isn’t “The Current War: Director’s Cut” level rescue. But whatever they edited out of “The Sunlit Night,” they made certain to keep the funny, sweet and sunny parts. And Slate makes the time pass like a late summer Green Flash — an enchanting moment or two or three, and gone.
Cast: Jenny Slate, Alex Sharp, Fridtjov Såheim, Jessica Hecht, David Paymer, Zach Galifianakis and Gillian Anderson
Credits: Directed by David Wnendt, script by Rebecca Dinerstein, based on her novel. A Quiver release.
Running time: 1:22