Whenever an indie film arrives with a cast full of well-known names and no advance buzz, that’s a red flag. When the movie arrives with a title as awful as Multiple Sarcasms, that’s more like a red bed-sheet—king-sized and flapping on the clothesline. Writer-director Brooks Branch’s debut film is set in 1979, and it stars Timothy Hutton as a successful architect who suffers a midlife crisis and subsequently alienates his wife, daughter, and extended family by writing a play about the complexity of modern relationships. In the play, he tries to articulate the conflicted feelings he’s having about his marriage and his career, by taking incidents from real life and making them fanciful and funny. Multiple Sarcasms tries to do much the same—except for the fanciful and funny part.
Hutton is fine as a man who pursues his passions even when he knows he’s hurting the people he loves. He’s well supported by Dana Delany, playing the wife who wants him to be happy but resents his selfishness; and by Mira Sorvino, playing the long-suffering platonic best friend who refuses his romantic advances, saying, “I will not be a new way for you to experience yourself.” Branch also adds some welcome visual pizzazz when needed, and admirably tries to keep the movie from becoming the story of a heroic creative adventurer and the people who try to drag him down. The characters in Multiple Sarcasms are more nuanced, and don’t reduce to a generic good or bad.
But “nuanced” doesn’t necessarily equate to “interesting.” For all Branch’s efforts to make a movie with the flavor of real life, he doesn’t completely avoid artificiality. From the jokes about Hutton overreacting to his daughter’s menstruation to the comic ruminations about the relative attractiveness of genitalia, Multiple Sarcasms often plays like a bad stand-up routine dramatized by serious actors. And the idea that Hutton’s character could turn all this patently unfunny material into a hit play is so preposterous that it makes the movie hard to take seriously. Every time Branch nods to 1979 by introducing a punk band with a stuffy name, or has his hero engage in vague conversations about male and female identity, it’s like being trapped in opposite-world, where the banal is meant to be brilliant.