There’s a moment in 30 Beats, from first-time writer/director Alexis Lloyd, where an attractive older woman (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) is trying to seduce a young man (Ben Levin) in a spa. The young man is unaware his father has actually hired the woman, a prostitute, to be his first sexual experience. As the two sit staring at each other across a hot tub, we briefly hear their inner thoughts about just how awkward the situation is and what the hell should they do now? It’s a sweet and funny exchange because it resonates as truthful. Yet, by being the only moment of its kind, it also exemplifies what’s wrong with the other 87 and a half minutes of the film.
30 Beats is an ensemble drama set in modern-day New York, based on the structure and themes of a stage play from the late 18th century called La Ronde, by Arthur Schnitzler. It’s neither the first film based on this play, nor will it be the last, even this year (see Fernando Meirelles’ upcoming 360). The structure is a series of interlocking two-person vignettes where we follow one character from the first scene to the next, and then the new character in the second scene moves on to the third, and so on.
The theme is doing it. And thank God, because the subject of sexuality has gone ignored in cinema for far too long.
Not surprisingly, what works well on the stage doesn’t always translate successfully to the screen. Except for one or two instances, the characters in nonadjacent scenes have no connection to one another, and the linking character often moves on to his or her second scene completely unaffected by what happened in the first one. This in turn means each transition brings an entirely new set of circumstances. Having to readjust to this every five to ten minutes is somewhat taxing on the audience. Since it comes off that way anyway, a straight-up anthology without linking characters might have been more effective. But then the raison d’etre of the film would be lost, so what’s the point?
Since the characters have so little screen time, it’s almost impossible to invest in them, and Lloyd doesn’t help by giving them anything particularly enlightening to do or say. The script instead uses a series of offbeat situations as a substitute for genuine interaction: Jennifer Tilly plays a weird tarot card reader/holistic healer who helps Justin Kirk cure his erectile dysfunction by having him rub some crystalline substance on his privates. And then they have sex. Lee Pace plays a chiropractor who has to fend off the overt and creepy advances of one of his patients, played by Boardwalk Empire’s Paz de la Huerta. And then they have sex. You get the idea.
When the dialogue isn’t banal, it’s full of indie movie self-awareness, which is why the aforementioned scene in the spa is so refreshing. It’s a brief glimpse of people being people, as opposed to characters who seem to exist solely within the boundaries of their first and last lines, serving some quirky, unknowable purpose.
As an experiment, 30 Beats is an uneven, if not entirely uninteresting, failure. In its attempt to be modern and titillating, it actually distances and confounds. When only one fraction of one beat out of thirty hits the mark, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.
Director: Alexis Lloyd
Writer: Alexis Lloyd
Starring: Condola Rashad, Justin Kirk, Jennifer Tilly, Jason Day, Paz de la Huerta, Lee Pace, Vahina Giocante, Thomas Sadoski, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Ben Levin
Release Date: July 20, 2012 (limited)