There are certain lousy movies that, no matter how awful they are, are simply guaranteed to wind up earning billions of dollars. For example, Charlie’s Angels. There are other lousy movies that, no matter how awful they are, are guaranteed to send critics into transports of ecstasy and win awards at the Sundance Film Festival. For example, Personal Velocity.
The title may sound like a Steven Seagal movie, but this is a serious art movie. The title refers to individual approaches to life: “Everybody,” says one character, “has their own personal velocity.” (Serious and artistic enough for you?) The movie was written and directed by Rebecca Miller (daughter of playwright Arthur Miller) and is based on her book of short stories. Subtitled Three Portraits, the movie is divided into three episodes. The first one is about Delia Shunt Wurtzle (Kyra Sedgwick), an abused wife who walks out on her husband and tries to build a new life in another city only to find that she’s brought her fear and anger along with her. Then there’s Greta (Parker Posey), a cookbook editor for a New York publisher who finds herself becoming bored with her decent but dull husband when she gets the plum gig of editing a hot young writer’s latest novel. Finally, we get Paula (Fairuza Balk), a pregnant teen whose own brush with death (as an innocent bystander at a drive-by shooting) loosely links the other two stories.
It’s easy to understand the impulse behind the rapturous reviews Personal Velocity has been getting. Movies so seldom seem to showcase actresses these days, and, when they do, as often as not it’s in moth-eaten junk like Sweet Home Alabama or Maid in Manhattan. Personal Velocity fiddles with serious themes about women’s lives rather than banal chick-flick fantasies. Moreover, it’s a showcase not for just one actress but for three of the busiest and best women in independent films. Then there’s the fact that Rebecca Miller herself is the daughter of the man widely considered America’s greatest living playwright. Most critics are loath to stifle such pedigreed ambition, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been dog-earing their thesauruses while digging for superlatives. But Personal Velocity is dead on the screen.
What kills the movie isn’t just the anecdotal, almost pointless nature of the stories Miller tells; Anton Chekhov, among others, showed us that, in the hands of a master, the most trivial tale can reveal layers of depth and complexity. But Miller’s idea of adapting her stories into a film—at least in the first two episodes here—seems to be just handing great, indigestible slabs of long-winded prose over to a narrator and letting him tell us all the things a real filmmaker would find ways to show us. The paradoxical result is that the star of Personal Velocity is not Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey or Fairuza Balk, but the narrator, John Ventimiglia, whose face we never see (and whose other credits include supporting roles in Jesus’ Son and the 1999 season of The Sopranos). Ventimiglia yammers constantly about what the characters did, why they did it and what they thought at the time and later.
It’s ironic that in this film about three women, which was written, directed, edited, photographed and designed by women and where men are either an inconvenience, an intrusion or a downright menace, the most consistent voice we hear is a male’s. But then, if Miller had hired a female narrator, she’d have been doing the poor woman no favor. John Ventimiglia’s lines—I presume they come directly from Miller’s original stories—sound like entries in one of those it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night bad-writing contests. A typical example: “ ‘Shunt’ rhymes with ‘cunt,’ but that’s not why Delia became the school slut.” And I’ll forever cherish this titanic howler: “She felt ambition draining from her body like pus from a lanced boil.” That one was greeted with gales of laughter from those in the audience who hadn’t already walked out.
With Personal Velocity, Rebecca Miller shows us that there’s more than one way to lance a boil.