'The Sunlit Night' Review: Zach Galifianakis, Gillian Anderson’s comedic potential wasted for lukewarm romance
Zach Galifianakis as the Cincinnati-born Viking Chief re-enactor and Gillian Anderson, as Yasha's estranged Russian mother, are woefully underused. They seem to have teleported in from a funnier movie into this one
Some times the trailer is better than the movie -- this is one of those instances. When you watch the trailer, you think it's going to one of those quirky comedies, a 'Lost in Translation', only funnier. You see gorgeous locales, Jenny Slate being awkwardly verbose, a baby goat, play-acting Vikings and Zach Galifianakis with Gillian Anderson pulling off some comic bits. Those are the best parts of the movie, really.
In fact, the film seems to have a habit of running away from the situations and circumstances ripe with dramatic and comedic possibilities to placid waters, after which drama is awkwardly constructed to fill a too blank canvas.
The story starts in New York, with Frances receiving a harsh critique of her bland art, "stripped of complexity" and then gets dumped by her lake-house owning boyfriend a few frames later. There is a gorgeous visual of her sitting on the bus home, water dripping from her body, and her eyes, after her swim gets cut short by the break up.
She retreats to her parents' cramped, colorful and chaotic New York apartment and the space looks fertile for moments of family drama and comedy. Especially after her sister announces she is getting married followed by her father (David Paymer) saying that her mother (Jessica Hecht) and he are separating.
But Frances is out of there, especially after a particularly hilarious segment where she and her father try to share an even more cramped art studio. Searching for space and inspiration, Frances finds herself in Norway, land of wide-open spaces with vistas so perfect that they look like cheesy 'bad' paintings and most importantly, since it's summer, the midnight sun.
Art and the artistic process would have been an interesting subplot, but Frances' (Jenny Slate) monologues as she sees the world through famous artworks and examines her own growth as an artist and her 'collaboration' with the reclusive, taciturn Norwegian artist, Nils (Fridtjov Såheim), are too wordy for the medium and too hackneyed in their import.
Instead, it is the quieter visual moments that communicate far more. Like when Nils covers the outside of the barn with broad strokes of yellow, while Frances paints the interiors, hesitantly, in small contained strokes that she wipes off when unhappy with them. Or how the visual of her wet, miserable, and alone self in the bus in New York contrasts with how she sits wet and happy beside Yasha (Alex Sharp) in the bus in Norway, going nowhere.
If the movie was just about a young artist finding her voice thanks to encounters with strangers in a strange land, it could still have worked. Instead, the core of the film is devoted to the romance that never really takes off.
The love interest is, of course, the above-mentioned Yasha, a Brooklyn baker who once served Frances a sandwich, who never forgets a face. He is there in Norway because he wants to give his Russian father the Viking funeral he always wanted.
Since there is a 'living history' museum (that recreates Viking lifestyle) in close proximity to where Nils and Frances are working, Yasha and Frances run into each other. After that, Frances essentially starts stalking him around the place, refusing to leave him alone. Why she does this is never explained -- except maybe that he is a familiar face far from home.
She soaks up his grief like some sort of artistic parasite, finding sorrowful depths in him that is missing in herself. It deepens her own craft. There is no chemistry but they do end up having picturesque sex inside the barn installation and manage to mess it up for Nils during the 'inspection' by curators who find them naked on the barn floor the next morning.
Zach Galifianakis as the Cincinnati-born Viking Chief re-enactor and Gillian Anderson, as Yasha's estranged Russian mother, make brief cameos. They are woefully underused and seem to have teleported in from a funnier movie into this one. The scene where Gillian Anderson's character first meets Galifianakis's character is pure comedy gold and you wish you had more of it to make this film rise to its latent comic potential.
'The Sunlit Night' is available on-demand from July 17, distributed by Quiver Distribution.