New York City Serenade is better than its buddies structure would indicate. More known as an actor, in this his third go as director from his own screenplay, Frank Whaley overcomes the tired contrasting pals routine by sticking to simplicity and, though flatly acted, reasonable central characters. Potty mouths, pseudo-liberated urban students and conventional comic bit characterizations -- including Wallace Shawn as himself -- surround the principals; a child and cocker spaniel add pathos; and the resolution reveals no surprise. Fortunately, the film does not dwell on the low humor or easy tears that nowadays appeal to audiences, and, quietly, the feel is acceptable.
New York City at the start in a neighborhood cinema, a bar-club, and a duplex party -- although one wonders who can afford such digs -- and at the end on a Madison Square Park bench, the scene shifts to a Jewish funeral in Jersey and then further afield for the long center at a shallowly fleshed World Wide Film Festival. A piano score and assorted other pieces do not compose the serenade of the title, from a 1974 Springsteen number, nor are there the requisite tourist sites; the still sad music provides only background to the pressure cooker of life in metropolis and the resultant transience of relationships which turn out more enduring than at first impression.
It is a city of filmmaking, touched on in throwaways in a subtitled art house import, a “Marx Brothers carrying the casket” quip, and a longing to return as an escape from making Tinseltown pizza commercials. Beyond spoof of the industry and fondness for place, the bare story tells about the love that is friendship, about growing up after reaching adulthood, about parting, responsibility, fate, and the bittersweet ties that bind.
Loquacious drummer in a band that will disband, Ray (Chris Klein) never holds onto a nine-to-five, loves but disappoints his small daughter and angry ex Mary (Heather Bucha), drinks incessantly, pockets things not nailed down, and is the traditional fast-talking schemer who embellishes his way out of trouble and into deals and women’s beds. He “overacts, phony as hell,” according to longtime straight man and often-unwilling accomplice Owen (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), a would-be filmmaker stuck in a photo shop and engaged to serious Lynn (Jamie-Lynn Sigler).
After running into awestruck Lynn’s affected French Literature professor (Sebastian Roché, as Noam Brodeur) at the weepy Cinema Village film recommended in class, the couple join Ray as he finishes a set, and, with a joint fib, Owen sends her home in a taxi so that the two men can crash a house party.
Attracted to a Columbia coed there, Owen is cooled by conscience, but the aroused Rachel (Diana Gettinger) is insistent. He is saved from consummation by the host’s attack on Ray, in the process of seducing his underage sister.
After tasteless humor, including dope, at friend Matt’s (Jeff Skowron) father’s funeral, Owen arrives late and reeking of alcohol for dinner with his girl, who has learned of his sexual misadventure, breaks their engagement, screens his apologetic calls, and refuses to answer.
With her out of the picture, Ray flies with Owen to the festival where his six-minute film is to open the shorts program. Unfortunately, everything comes crashing down around their ears there, and they head different ways to opposite coasts. Two years later, a chance meeting that is actually planned gives closure, and disclosure of incipient professional success in one case and of reformed familial promise in the other.
Uninspired performances and a lack of chemistry fail to project whatever has brought and kept this odd couple together. But each thinks about the other, and while one’s former family may be in for revival, the other’s commitment to potential family fades. Not blasted in loud silliness, the idea here is not bad.
(Released by Archer Entertainment and rated "R" for language, brief sexuality and drug use.)