The problem with “Before You Know It,” the debut feature from writer-director Hannah Pearl Utt (“Disengaged”), is that it overloads its 90-or-so minute running time with characters and subplots. Instead of focusing on the strength of some of her material here, Utt strikes out in far too many directions.
Utt herself plays a stage manager named Rachel, who is first seen walking down a Manhattan street with another woman; they talk rapidly about their lives, and Rachel offers some information about an actress mother who might have died that sounds too much like plot exposition. It turns out that this meeting between the women is something of a date, but the rather passive Rachel is too tied to her family responsibilities to go any further with it.
“Before You Know It” sets Rachel up in a situation that on the surface seems like a dream, or at the very least contrived: She lives above a small theater in a building that her family owns, and it looks like this theater is modeled on the old Grove Street Playhouse in the West Village of Manhattan. Rachel’s actor-playwright father Mel is played by Mandy Patinkin, who behaves as if he just wandered over from a Noah Baumbach film.
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Rachel and her sister Jackie (Jen Tullock, who co-wrote the script with Utt) are both struggling to help Mel put on his play “The Way I See It,” and he doesn’t make it easy. The sisters bring Mel to the sprawling Signature Theatre complex on 42nd Street, where they expect him to do some ass-kissing, but Mel dramatically throws himself down on the steps of the space and then prematurely yells at people for not coming to his aid sooner, which is supposed to prove how callous they are but only proves that Mel is an arrogant jerk. This is underlined for us when he gets up on stage, looks out at a respectful audience, and gives them the raspberry.
Mel is unbearable, and so when Rachel finally tells him she doesn’t care about his play, we can’t really blame her. Mel is framed in close-up after she says this to register the shock of his daughter turning on him, and when he walks down the stairs of their home we hear them creak; we also see that the red paint is chipping from the walls, production design details that let us know that this fantasy life of theirs is starting to look very threadbare.
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Mel dies around 20 minutes into “Before You Know It,” and we find out afterward that his wife is still alive and co-owner of his building. She is a soap opera star named Sherrell, played by Judith Light, who matches up very well with Utt visually. (This is commented on in the dialogue.)
Jackie wants to meet her mother, and so she drags Rachel along to the set of Sherrell’s soap “Time Will Tell,” and this commences the weakest section of the film, which tries to blend comedy with a little social commentary, all of which falls flat. It really shouldn’t be difficult to have fun with a soap opera plotline, and Utt didn’t need to make these scenes into a “Soapdish”-style farce for them to succeed.
Utt’s strengths here lie in the dramatic scenes, particularly several confrontations towards the end, which are very well acted. Tullock has been given the most difficult assignment, because her character Jackie is written as an unrelentingly irritating person for about half of the film and Tullock plays her that way, but then she is expected to make a transition and have the character change for the better, and she just about manages it.
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Of all the actors here, Light is the one who makes the best effort to present a coherent character. When Sherrell tells Rachel about why she left her children and about the pain of her own early life, Light makes the choice to deliver these lines in a hushed, suspended sort of way, as if she might fall and hurt herself if she admits all of this. It’s a double-edged choice, because it also feels like Sherrell is wondering if she can get away with such an explanation. This scene shows what a first-class actor can do with conventional writing.
There are two scenes involving Alec Baldwin as a therapist to Jackie’s young daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe) that feel very superfluous, and long before its conclusion the ungainly “Before You Know It” has collapsed under the weight of all it is trying to do.