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Edelstein on A Short History of Decay: The Little That Happens Is More Than Enough in This Beautiful Tale

Nathan Fisher (Bryan Greenberg), the protagonist of Michael Maren’s wistful family comedy A Short History of Decay, is a blocked Brooklyn writer who gets dumped by his gorgeous live-in girlfriend, Erika (Emmanuelle Chriqui), for having (essentially) no purpose in life. A short time later, he learns that his father, Bob (Harris Yulin), has had a stroke. After pleading with Erika for sympathy, Nathan flies to his parents’ spacious home in Sarasota, Florida, where his dad is recovering and his mom, Sandy (Linda Lavin), is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Nathan sits around feeling sorry for himself, chats up a French girl (Rebecca Dayan) at a bar, has lunch with his mother’s sunny manicurist (Kathleen Rose Perkins), and bickers with his parents and visiting older brother (Benjamin King), a lobbyist. Not a lot happens, and yet, as in the best so-called “slice of life” stories, you feel one way of life ending and another struggling to be born. The little that happens is enough.

Maren spent years in sub-Saharan Africa, writing a book —¬†The Road to Hell¬†— that exposed the myriad ways in which humanitarian aid is prevented from reaching its Third World targets. He’s frankly the last person I’d have guessed would make a movie focusing on the inner sadness of a privileged slacker. That’s probably why the film transcends its particulars and becomes so moving. The (borderline-pretentious) title comes from a book by the Romanian-born aphorist E.M. Cioran, which contains the line, “People are generally more afraid of living than they are of dying.” That’s the movie’s (soft-sell) revelation. Strutting and fretting while his parents fail, Nathan begins to discern the difference between useless idleness and idleness that leads to what only Paul McCartney’s fool on the hill can see: the world spinning ‘round.

Greenberg is airy and attractive enough to keep Nathan from being an irritant, but it’s the parents who anchor the movie. I’ve never seen Yulin this fine, Bob’s crankiness borne of fear he won’t directly express. Lavin’s performance is so good she’s spooky. Sandy’s Alzheimer’s is manifest in a wispy fog, but it’s broken by moments of hyperlucidity: She fixes her eyes on her son and sends final messages from astride a grave.

*This article appears in the May 19, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Paladin