It’s easy to justify a life in the arts when the paychecks have plenty of zeroes and fame means never bothering with a dinner reservation.
“Just 45 Minutes from Broadway” asks a knottier question. Is a theatrical life worth living if it takes all of your effort just to land a spot in an off-off-off Broadway show?
Writer/director Henry Jaglom, adapting his own play, finds his coterie of regulars expounding on that every issue. The film opens in a mock stage setting, a fissure in the fourth wall that could have been handled more adeptly but still puts us in the proper frame of mind for what’s to come.
Energetic Panda (Tanna Frederick) and her family are awaiting the arrival of sister Betsy (Julie Davis) and her new beau James (Judd Nelson). Family histrionics erupt almost immediately, mostly due to Panda’s complicated relationship with Betsy.
Panda and Betsy’s parents try to make James feel at home, but who would feel homesick for this dramatic clan?
The patriarch (Jack Heller) means well, but he longs for the glory days of the Yiddish theater he’ll never experience again and exerts too much energy on a Skype interview with an obscure media outlet.
The cast keenly details the pleasures and pain of their lifestyle. Panda and co. may play to near-empty theaters, but they also know they’re just one great performance away from getting the fix they sorely need.
Jaglom cuts to the heart of the struggling artist, from his thin skin to the heights of past glories. It’s a touching moment when Panda's dad admits why he invited his small children on stage for the first time, but it’s also a signal that narcissism is never too far from any conversation.
Jaglom should have given the actors more variation in their passion. They all play to a similarly intense life/artificial life ratio. Some of the better scenes feature blips of that ferocity, nothing more, like a wonderfully lived in exchange during a seder.
The auteur’s work rarely adheres to our expectations, and that’s undoubtedly true with “Broadway.” The dialogue is sharp edged and yet organic, the characters reveal themselves in both deeds and actions, and it all goes down rather smoothly despite a restricted budget.
It’s impossible to defend Jaglom’s decision to have Panda enter one scene with dirt smeared on her face and arm and have those marks lingers through multiple scenes. It's emblematic of Frederick's overheated, albeit magnetic performance.
It’s easy to see why Judd’s fussy fellow melts before her, but she isn’t given enough grounded scenes to make the connection click. Surely no man would want Panda in ‘on’ mode for so long.
Nelson, our center of gravity, gracefully navigates a role that requires him to act both sheepish and bold, a man torn between attraction to outsized passions and a realism at his core.
"45 Minutes from Broadway" ultimately excels at showing us why some artists will suffer almost any indignity to keep one foot - or even a single toe - on the stage.