Hey, remember 2020 quarantine? That’s a joke — of course you do. Not only was it the most disruptive worldwide event of the last five years, it has also been exhaustively mined for content. Only three years out, it already feels like all the articles, books, social media posts, paintings, films, and TV shows that could be made about quarantine have already been made. Such is the nature of our rapid-fire online world. If you want to say something about the pandemic lockdown, it’d better be inventive. Like, a-Zoom-seance-killed-all-my-friends inventive.
Unfortunately, “Life Upside Down” makes no such contributions. This second feature from the writer-director Cecilia Miniucchi (“Expired”) uses the expected pandemic filmmaking gimmicks — actors filmed their scenes on phones and computers as Miniucchi directed them remotely — to produce a cringe-inducing melodrama. In this undercooked tale of middle-aged romance, there is nobody to root for and nothing of interest. All there is is being trapped in the house.
The film’s opening sequence — one of two filmed with a full crew, post-quarantine — finds our four protagonists at a gallery show. The gallery owner is Jonathan Wigglesworth (Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”). His mistress, Clarissa (Radha Mitchell, “Run Hide Fight”) is eager to introduce him to her friends, Paul (Danny Huston, “The Aviator,” “Succession”) and his wife, Rita (Rosie Fellner, “The Trip to Italy”). Paul and Rita contemplate buying a painting while Jonathan and Clarissa canoodle in the back room. They pretend not to know each other when Paul’s wife, Sue (Jeanie Lim, “Mommy Is a Murderer”), arrives.
Soon after the gallery show, the world is turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. (The filmmakers demonstrate this, ingeniously, by literally rotating a shot of the Los Angeles skyline upside down.) The bulk of the film takes place over a week in quarantine. Clarissa struggles to keep a remote romance going with Jonathan, who can’t sneak away from his wife and is struggling financially. Meanwhile, Paul’s book project is interrupted by trouble in his marriage and calls from his mother’s retirement home.
It is all exactly as gripping as it sounds. Prepare your microscopic violins for Jonathan, who, when not cheating on the mother of his children, can be found disappointing Clarissa. Flex your eye-rolling muscles for Paul, an insufferable pedant who, though he seems to be writing the most derivative book imaginable, continuously condescends to his wife. It’s even hard to feel bad for Clarissa, as she repeatedly pauses her life for a disappointing man named Jonathan Wigglesworth.
The wives, Rita and Sue, are essentially decoration. Rita, some 15 years younger than her husband, is a fit, health-obsessed blonde. She doesn’t get her husband’s lofty intellectual pursuits and makes him eat mildly strange food. (Quelle horreur.) At least Paul thinks she has a kickin’ bod.
Sue doesn’t even show her face for the bulk of the film, instead existing as a kind of meddlesome phantom in Jonathan’s periphery. This is likely due to some casting intricacies necessitated by the unique production — indeed, there are “Sue body” and “Sue additional voice” roles in the credits — but it makes Jonathan look like even more of an unsympathetic creep.
Jonathan and Paul may learn to love the ones they’re with as the film progresses, but that doesn’t solve for these women’s presentations. They’re more ideas than they are actual people, plot points that can either burden or enlighten the men who tolerate them.
In short, Miniucchi’s script is terrible. Her characters are wispy and baffling, their hardships frivolous. They speak as if their lines were generated by an AI. We find out that Jonathan and Clarissa are an item because Jonathan says, “I think you saved me. Before we met, I was so depressed, and that first time we made love, you brought me back to life.” These are some of the first words Jonathan says to her in the entire film.
Suffice to say not even Bob Odenkirk can charm his way out of this one. Everyone else also seems to be (pardon the pun) phoning it in, save for Mitchell. She is surprisingly vivacious in this total dud, serving up seduction and ire and warmth, even via Zoom. Clarissa might be hard to love, but her actor isn’t.
As all the non-issues in “Life Upside Down” are neatly resolved, the only mystery that remains is how this movie — which, per press notes, was “financed with private equity” — ever got made, much less shown at the Venice Film Festival. Maybe there’s a juicy story there, maybe Miniucchi is still coasting on her reported mentorship under Lina Wertmuller. Either way, it’s difficult to imagine anyone watching “Life Upside Down” out of anything other than abject desperation.
Ultimately, the most entertaining part of “Life Upside Down,” for those of us privileged members of the intelligentsia, is its weird, peak-pandemic nostalgia. “Remember when we wore gloves to grocery shop?” you might ask yourself. Maybe you’ll chuckle when you see all the PPE Clarissa dons to pick up her mail. Really, though, you’ll probably never see this movie at all. And you should count yourself lucky for that.
“Life Upside Down” is in theaters and on demand on Jan. 27.