‘Guest Artist’ loses steam soon af­ter ar­riv­ing at the sta­tion

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT -

We’re still in the early stages of “Guest Artist” when it be­comes ev­i­dent this train is never leav­ing the sta­tion — or should I say the main char­ac­ters are never go­ing to leave the ac­tual train sta­tion where the movie is set.

At the out­set of “Guest Artist,” which is writ­ten by and stars Jeff Daniels and is di­rected by Ti­mothy Bus­field, we’re told the story “is based on an in­ci­dent which be­came a play which be­came this film,” and in fact it was orig­i­nally staged at Daniels’ Pur­ple Rose The­ater Com­pany in his home­town of Chelsea, Michi­gan. While the movie in­cludes a cou­ple of scenes that take place out­side the con­fines of the afore­men­tioned train sta­tion in small-town Michi­gan, for the most part this comes across as a filmed ver­sion of a stage play that prob­a­bly worked a lot bet­ter in its orig­i­nal form than it does here. The per­for­mances and the pro­duc­tion de­sign are first-rate, but even at 74 min­utes, “Guest Artist” is an overly talky, at times out­dated and cliché-rid­dled two-han­der that wears out its wel­come by the half­way mark.

In the open­ing and by far most cin­e­matic scene in the film, we’re in Man­hat­tan’s the­ater dis­trict at the height of the hol­i­day sea­son, with Daniels’ once-cel­e­brated play­wright Joseph Harris crawl­ing in­side of a bot­tle and look­ing like he’s one step away from be­ing home­less when his cyn­i­cal, world­weary agent (soap opera veteran Erika Slezak in a great cameo) says she some­how man­aged to find him a pay­ing job, as a the­ater com­pany in Michi­gan has signed on to premiere his lat­est work.

That’s it. That’s the gig. Ei­ther take it and get your sorry self to Michi­gan or find an­other agent.

Joseph is deathly afraid of fly­ing, so he takes the train and is thor­oughly soused by the time he stum­bles into the sta­tion and passes out while wait­ing for his ride to show up. En­ter lo­cal as­pir­ing play­wright and un­abashed Joseph Harris fan Ken­neth Waters (Thomas Ma­cias), who works at the the­ater com­pany and has been as­signed to be Joseph’s driver/as­sis­tant, and whose en­thu­si­asm about meet­ing his idol isn’t damp­ened a bit when Joseph greets him by yelling at him for be­ing late and say­ing of the town, “This feels like one of those places you go to only if you have to, does it feel that way to you?”

“I’m from here,” says Ken­neth. “Es­cape,” re­torts Joseph. Daniel’s screen­play con­tains a num­ber of clever lit­tle ex­changes like that — but it’s also filled with over­wrought mono­logues about how “an artist should never apol­o­gize” for any­thing, and to­day’s iPhone-ob­sessed gen­er­a­tion doesn’t have the at­ten­tion span to ap­pre­ci­ate the the­ater, and boy was Eu­gene O’Neill lucky to have been a writer a cen­tury ago. The con­ceit keep­ing the set­ting at the train sta­tion is Joseph re­fus­ing to get in Ken­neth’s car to be driven to his ho­tel (and to re­hearsals at the play­house the next day) and in­sist­ing on re­turn­ing to New York City — but there’s the mat­ter of a lack of funds, not to men­tion the next train isn’t due for quite a while, so we’re all stuck here.

The earnest Ken­neth keeps quot­ing ver­ba­tim from Joseph’s work, even cit­ing spe­cific dates of op-ed pieces and in­ter­views. Di­rec­tor Bus­field and his pro­duc­tion team do an ad­mirable job of mov­ing the cam­era about the train sta­tion (and oc­ca­sion­ally out­side), but it’s not enough to over­come the static na­ture of the story, as Joseph be­comes ever more ver­bose and tire­some, and Ken­neth’s wide-eyed fan­boy act wears thin, and the train sta­tion not only con­fines the drama but comes close to flat-out stop­ping it in its tracks.


Ar­riv­ing in a Michi­gan small town for a job, has-been play­wright Joseph Harris (Jeff Daniels) con­fronts his driver (Thomas Ma­cias) in “Guest Artist.”

RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

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