“Touchy Feely” is the kind of film that makes you wish they had perfected choose-your-own-adventure technology for movies, one that would allow you to ditch the central character and follow any number of the story’s more interesting second bananas.
With her new film, Seattle-based writer-director Lynn Shelton (“Your Sister’s Sister,” “Humpday”) returns with another look at rainy-day people searching for love and stability. This time, though, she — like her massage-therapist protagonist — seems to have lost her touch for humanity.
Rosemarie DeWitt stars as Abby, who’s great with her clients but more withholding when it comes to her relationship with nice-guy bike shop owner Jesse (Scoot McNairy, “Argo”). He’d like her to move in, and while she claims to be enthusiastic about the idea, she prolongs the packing-up of her apartment beyond a reasonable length of time.
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Meanwhile, Abby’s more buttoned-down brother Paul (Josh Pais, “Ray Donovan”) runs their late father’s old dental practice, one that’s slowing down as more and more of the patients die off. Paul resists suggestions from his hygenist daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) that they should advertise, but when she brings in a friend whose TMJ improves after a session with Paul, they get a flood of new patients with jaw pain.
Abby goes into shut-down mode, finding herself repelled by the idea of touching skin — a strained metaphor that might have worked in a better movie — while Paul suddenly opens himself up to the idea of assuaging the pain of others, even seeking out Abby’s Reiki therapist Bronwyn (Allison Janney) to take lessons in healing touch.
“Touchy Feely” touches upon any number of interesting relationships, from Jenny’s quiet longing for Jesse to the unlikely attraction that blooms between nerdy Paul and free-spirited Bronwyn, but too often Shelton returns to Abby, who is such an unsympathetic narcissist that not even the charismatic DeWitt can make her compelling.
The plot climaxes with several characters dropping Ecstasy to reach an emotional catharsis, which is one of the laziest shortcuts in the screenwriter’s handbook. Coming from the filmmaker who crafted that extraordinary first act of “Your Sister’s Sister,” where the characters played by DeWitt and Mark Duplass get drunk at a kitchen table and spill their guts, the script here suffers by comparison.
That’s a pity, because the cast couldn’t be more on point. McNairy is slowly but surely establishing himself as one of contemporary film’s most watchable character actors (he’ll soon be seen in Steve McQueen‘s buzzed-about “12 Years a Slave”), and the surprise scene-stealer here is Pais, one of those journeyman That-Guy actors whose face you know and name you probably don’t. It’s too easy to make repressed characters either completely washed-out or excessively twitchy, but he strikes a perfect balance, making this stuffy dentist an original and memorable comic creation.
Shelton’s obviously got a way with actors and knows how to cast some of the best ones around — with any luck, her next effort will be at their level.