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Nicholas Rutherford and Lauren Lapkus in The Unicorn.
Nicholas Rutherford and Lauren Lapkus in The Unicorn.
The Orchard

Threesomes Are Tiresome in The Unicorn

In his new comedy The Unicorn, director/musician Robert Schwartzman (lead singer of the L.A. band Rooney) presents a unique dilemma: What if your parents are more sexually progressive than you are? What if their relationship makes yours look like a dwindling balloon with the air sucked out of it?

The two protagonists of Schwartzman’s boisterous, at times incongruent second film approach this situation as a challenge more than an impediment. It ends up being both. Mal (Lauren Lapkus) brings her fiancé of four years, Cal (Nicholas Rutherford), to Palm Springs for her parents’ (Beverly D’Angelo, John Kapelos) marriage renewal. There they discover that her dear, sweet folks indulge in the occasional threesome to keep the flame alive, so Mal and Cal are inspired to hit the town that very night and find a polymorphous “unicorn” of their own to indulge their carnal fantasies.

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The problem is Cal and Mal have lived in their own stale, innocuous bubble for so long, they've forgotten what it’s like to have sexual caprices in the first place. Watching this bored couple create erotic personas in order to capture that lucky “unicorn” is a ride worth taking; although it can be a frustrating journey.

With a fantastic setup for a classic comedy of errors, Cal and Mal encounter several peculiar characters in their determination to have a threesome and, in doing so, hopefully corrupt their preconceived notions of sex (watching this movie, you’d think Palm Springs has become Amsterdam in its erotic hedonism). These players include Jesse (Lucy Hale), an “energy alchemist,” whose disproportionate behavior is mistaken as flirting; Tyson (SNL’s Beck Bennett, who steals the movie), an exasperated manager of a male strip bar; and finally April (Dree Hemingway), a high-end escort. Cal and Mal stumble their way through these scenes like improv theater dropouts plunged onto a porn set.

There are more hits than misses in The Unicorn. Some moments are laugh-out-loud funny and the performances are genuinely earnest. But what could have been an introspective Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice for Generation Z, ends up being another mumblecore pantomime. While that 1969 Paul Mazursky film, also an exploration of sexual mores for an untested generation, studied its characters to peel back layers of its subject, The Unicorn simply goes for laughs in drawn-out sequences. And that’s fine, if the movie were a straightforward farce, but I saw more potential in the story than a mere improv sketch. The problem lies in the quip-laden dialogue, which is delivered with such spitfire cadence that you lose the depth of characters you’re supposed to care about in the third act.

Schwartzman comes from a cinematic family (he's the son of Rocky's Talia Shire and brother of actor Jason Schwartzman, not to mention nephew to Francis Ford Coppola and cousin to Sofia Coppola). His first film, Dreamland, received mixed reviews, while The Unicorn, which debuted at South by Southwest, has been better received critically. But after a hopeful opening, the script intermittently settles for lazy formulas, ruining what could have been an audacious statement about our modern failings to connect with each other and our own sensuality.

There is something raw and empathetic in The Unicorn's sexual themes.  It’s just too bad Schwartzman approaches them with the same coyness and discomfort as his protagonists.

The Unicorn is available on digital and on-demand starting Feb. 5. It's also playing at the Laemmle NoHo through Thursday, Feb. 7.

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