Cast: Sung Kang, Zosia Mamet, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Lee Meriwether, Harold Perrineau, Jim Parsons
Some films void your thoughts.
Sunset Stories fancies itself a romantic-dramedy/mystery, but amidst the tugging and pulling it winds up being a laborious, pretentious test of its audience’s patience. The problem is the screenwriters wanted Sunset Stories to be so much. And it tries hard — earnestly so – but winds up being nothing but an hour and a half drudge buoyed by tongue-in-cheek celebrity cameos.
Nurse May (Monique Gabriela Curnen) is tasked with transporting a cooler full of bone marrow from Los Angeles back to the hospital where she works in Boston. The only problem is that Los Angeles is May’s metaphoric closet in which all her skeletons are hidden. It is there, years earlier, she left boyfriend JP (Sung Kang) abruptly and without explanation after accepting his proposal of marriage. Of course, May’s precious marrow-lined cooler is stolen and — guess what – JP is the only person in LA who can help her recover it. Improbable, yes, however if one voluntarily ventures into the world of Sunset Stories, one must also adopt the film’s diegetic logic, a system of reasoning which bears little resemblance to that of our own.
For example, May frames her recent odyssey in Los Angeles as a fairy tale to her juvenile cancer patients. For what reason remains unknown throughout Sunset Stories’ torturous 84 minutes. And it is small fallacies like these that add up to constitute the biggest mystery in the film, which is: why is any of this happening? Of what consequence is this story to the characters or to us, the audience?
The film fluctuates wildly in tone from absurd humor to the basest-level sincerity several times, and often within the same scene. The screenwriters seem to fundamentally misunderstand dialogue, often implementing it to bridge plot points and character development to an irritating degree. The problem is the character don’t do anything, they walk around and talk and look sad. And this is, unfortunately, how Sunset Stories has chosen to unfold.
But if you’re going to drive a film with dialogue – it isn’t unheard of – you need to make sure you’re damn good at writing it. Ernesto Foronda and Valerie Stadler make up for their lack of screenwriting knack by over-sentimentalizing their characters at every possible turn. With each character we encounter, the viewer is folded up into a new plot thread. But what is there anything to make us care? All the individual plots must eventually be resolved, and the script simply doesn’t have the chops to execute effectively. It’s all very taxing on an audience who’s automatically expected to be invested in each character.
It doesn’t help that the two leads share zero on-screen chemistry. I suppose it serves the plot, but it certainly makes for an exercise in awkward, stiff, and outright cringe-worthy scenes. JP and May discuss in detail their previous relationship without context. In fact we only learn about the couple’s conflict through these lengthy exposition scenes. Consequently the audience is mostly left in the dark as to the motivation behind their coupling until well into the halfway point of the film.
The contents of the cooler aren’t revealed until about halfway through, either. I don’t consider writing here that it’s bone marrow a spoiler in any degree, as knowing so changes nothing. And it’s quite frankly a mystery to me why the filmmakers would hide it for so long. Perhaps they falsely believed it would add weight to the plot mid-way through. Chalk it up to cinema’s weakest MacGuffin.
Sunset Stories is a sputtering wreck of a film. Padded out with artificial drama born from the stiff, telegraphed interactions characters have with one another. It’s visceral identity is achieved through the liberal use of telephoto lenses (crisply focused foreground, fuzzy background). At it’s best, Sunset Stories is fleetingly chortle-inducing, at its worst its choppily edited, overly sentimental, poorly written and awkwardly executed.