The biggest surprise about Patrick Wang’s sweepingly ambitious, two-part, four-hour ensemble piece A Bread Factory is: The film, a sort of cinematic state-of-the-arts speech, is endlessly warm, playful and lovable, a sprawling and prankish hangout comedy with no clear precedent. Wang favors long, single-shot scenes capturing uninterrupted performance, his actors here often playing actors themselves or poets or tap dancers or singing real estate agents. Surveying the bustle around a small town’s performing arts center, savoring the quirks and ambitions of the artists who populate it, A Bread Factory at times suggests, in its nimble comic portraiture within a sprawling milieu, in its spirited blend of naturalism and sketch comedy, the work of Richard Linklater, Christopher Guest, Robert Altman and Edward Yang. And in its scenes of actors performing their characters’ own onstage performances, Wang proves himself among the best directors any community theater ever had.
The film is utterly singular, though, the kind of work that will become a point of comparison itself. Even its two halves proceed in different modes. Wang has crafted them to mostly stand alone, though you’ll get much more from each if you see them in sequence.
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A Bread Factory’s first half, following the fight of the arts center’s founders — Dorothea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry) — to prevent the local school board from withdrawing its funding, plays as a series of blackout scenes and sketches that rib and celebrate the lives of artists and the art-adjacent. An independent filmmaker (a wonderful Janeane Garofalo) harangues a Bread Factory audience for not having any Qs at a Q&A. Characters give monologues from plays they’re in or works they’re inventing on the spot. In a lavishly moving speech, Greta addresses a young volunteer (Keaton Nigel Cooke) whose parents have grown leery of his spending so much time with oddball artists, telling him just how much his help has meant. A newspaper editor (Kit Flanagan) blows the mind of a poet (Noah Averbach-Katz) she’s interviewing merely by having actually read his books and later gives an intern at the paper (Zachary Sayle) the best advice a reporter or writer or thinker can receive: “Always, always, be on the lookout for what you do not know.”
Wang himself is always on the lookout, and the film proceeds less according to the strictures of plot than to delighted surprise. The first half of A Bread Factory builds, as it must, to a confrontation with the school board, a lengthy, hilarious sequence in which a critic huzzahs the rich pleasure of watching laundry dry on a stage. And a slab of Hollywood beefcake (Chris Conroy) gives a rousing speech against funding the Bread Factory — and, at its peak, has to call “Line?” to someone off-camera. The many threads Wang has dangled for us come together loosely but pleasingly, each its own memorable event.
The second half proves somewhat darker but also more brazenly inventive in its scene craft. If Part One centered on the role of the arts in the lives of these characters and their community, Part Two finds their lives becoming art. Suddenly, song-and-dance numbers break out in parking lots and coffee shops. In one unforgettable sequence, real estate agents beseech Dorothea, in four-part harmony, to consider selling her old barn. Like most Bread Factory scenes, that happens in one protracted take; spinning idly in an office swivel chair, Daly makes Dorothea’s simmering annoyance — tempered by boundless patience — delectable.
For all that goofy spontaneity, that sense that the characters sometimes simply are moved to sing, the second half’s most exciting thread concerns the labor that goes into art. Wang tracks a scene from a Bread Factory production of Hecuba from an uncertain rehearsal, to a breakthrough for its actors, to a searching discussion of the text and the characters, to a final performance so thrilling that I found myself wishing, while watching, that Wang would just shoot the whole play. Happily, he lets this Hecuba keep going, a testament to what artists working on a shoestring — and possibly to empty houses — might be achieving when the rest of us aren’t looking. Look for A Bread Factory.