The best way to watch “Chronically Metropolitan” is to think of it as a parody of a particularly pretentious brand of indie romance. Unfortunately, though, director Xavier Manrique and writer Nicholas Schutt (“Blood & Oil”) play it so solemnly straight for their feature debut that it seems unlikely they’re aiming for satire.
Shiloh Fernandez (“Evil Dead”) is Fenton Dillane, a twentysomething author whose single short story in The New Yorker made such a massive impact on the world that, as he complains, he was “forced into exile.”
Anyway, after hiding out for a year in San Francisco, he decides it’s safe to return to his old life in Manhattan. But when he strolls back into his parents’ Upper East Side duplex, he finds things are even worse than when he left.
His father, Christopher (Chris Noth), is a professor and author who’s also fortunate enough to live in a world that considers writers of supreme importance. When Christopher gets caught having a drug-fueled affair with two of his students, he’s flattered to make the cover of the New York Post. But he’s also genuinely annoyed that he wasn’t similarly honored when he won a National Book Award.
Mom Annabel (Mary-Louise Parker, shamefully underused) has had enough of Christopher’s Mailer-esque misbehavior, so she’s in the midst of moving out. Fenton’s collegiate sister (Addison Timlin, “That Awkward Moment”) has started an affair with her mother’s pot dealer (Josh Peck, a long way from “Drake & Josh”). Plus Fenton’s ex-girlfriend Jessie (Ashley Benson,”Pretty Little Liars”), whom he’s hoping to win back, is about to marry an art curator (Chris Lowell, “GLOW”). And not just any curator, but the fancy British type who calls bar fights “donnybrooks.”
On the bright side, Fenton has been offered a very impressive book deal based on that infamous magazine story. But will the work be authentic? Is it what he really wants? Life is so confusing!
In 2005, Noah Baumbach had the good sense to set his version of this story — “The Squid and the Whale” — in the past, when a New Yorker byline really might change someone’s life, and great writers could expect to get away with being obscenely selfish just because they were talented. (Baumbach also had originality, a fully-committed cast and painfully sharp insight on his side.)
Manrique’s concept, though, rings hollow from beginning to end. Vintage typewriters, carefully-placed Philip Roth novels, aggressively curated facial hair, and casually dropped references to “Matthew and Björk” aren’t enough to sustain an entire movie. And unfortunately, the performances are so stilted (only Peck stands out) that these thinly-drawn characters feel as false as the world they inhabit.
In fairness, the film does look great. It’s shot nicely (by cinematographer Scott Miller), and production designer Lucio Seixas (“Southside with You”) does a skillful job creating this affluent, self-consciously superficial setting. The only problem is that the fictional universe he, and everyone else, evokes is a lot less New Yorker than it is “Gossip Girl.”