A WWII combat medic and Holocaust survivor meets a woman who left her combat vet husband in an otherwise empty New York bar in “The Second Sun,” a crushing bore of a screen romance starring one of writer Norman Mailer’s nine children.
If you ever doubted that a movie with a Holocaust subtext could be dull, here’s 75 minutes of proof. It’s a three-set drama, with flashbacks and a lot of mundane flirtation that probes at the wounds he won’t show, but that she cannot hide.
Max (John Buffalo Mailer) came home from the war to a job in a pastry shop/breakfast cafe. But it’s at his Irish friend Joe’s empty bar that he meets Joy.
She (Eden Epstein) is mysterious, pretty and curious when he insists on talking to her, catering to her every need. She needs cold.
“Take my coat.” “That’s not necessary.” “I insist.” I said no THANK you.”
She wants to know about his life, the drab job he took on after “sewing people up” on the battlefields of Europe.
“Is it enough?” “Hell, just being alive is enough.”
Later, as the night wears on, he cuts to the chase of his personal survival.
“I stayed alive to meet the woman of my dreams.”
Mailer, slinging a Brooklyn (ish) accent, plays Max as a immigrant who learned to talk at the talkies, “gangster pictures,” a man sanguine about what he saw in the war and all those he lost.
When Joy sees the tattoo on his arm, she is taken aback by guilt, by how his experiences make her feel “small” by comparison.
But Joy has had her losses, her burdens to carry.
As they sip (she gulps) wine into the wee hours, she questions him and he picks up the pieces of her story. Flashbacks (black and white, drably-acted) fill us in on personal loss, war and the disconnect she senses and tries to flee, but which Max brushes off at every turn.
There’s a theatricality to some of the dialogue that makes one think James Patrick Nelson’s script started life as a simple single-set play, reliant on poetic word pictures to carry the load.
“Autumn — that’s my favorite time of year, the way the colors change, it’s like dying and coming to life at the same time.”
Working from that, director Jennifer Gelfer goes for something old-fashioned — a dance scene set in a pool of light on a dark soundstage, a tidy, well-lit bar that would pass for higher end, even then, complete with Irish owner (Ciaran Byrne) brogueing up a twinkle.
Mailer plays every scene and every line in a flat tone that suggests resignation, accepted fate and muted optimism — or a very limited range. Epstein, of the Starz series “Sweetbitter,” is at least more animated.
But for all the melodrama here and the dramatic possibilities presented, this is a stilted, stunningly stale directing debut. The performances don’t connect and the “reality” of it all is treated as an airless age of exhaustion and ennui.
The post-war past was never this dull.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual situations, alcohol, smoking
Cast: John Buffalo Mailer, Eden Epstein, Ciaran Byrne
Credits: Directed by Jennifer Gelfer, script by James Patrick Nelson. An 1844 release.
Running time: 1:17