Dana Adam Shapiro acquits himself well with his first fiction feature, Monogamy, a crossbreed between relationship drama and sexual thriller. A former journalist, Shapiro co-directed 2005’s Oscar-nominated Murderball, an intriguing if somewhat rote documentary about wheelchair rugby.
With Monogamy, he adapts a familiar indie aesthetic, with lots of handheld camerawork and improvisation, but his eye for keenly observed details and his skill in guiding actors are both readily apparent. The film’s spaces actually feel lived-in, and the natural rhythms of the domestic scenes are punctuated by the thrill of voyeuristic possibilities.
Chris Messina and Rashida Jones star as Theo and Nat, an engaged couple living in Brooklyn. From the start, it’s clear their behavior patterns are familiar to each other, though it’s hard to say whether they’ve slipped into the comfortability that comes with a long-term relationship or a kind of pre-commitment malaise.
Nat’s an aspiring musician; Theo’s a wedding photographer who’s branched out with a side business he calls Gumshoot. He arranges a meeting place with a client and then shoots photos of them clandestinely, providing the person with a markedly different perspective. As the film begins, Theo is shooting a kindly old man, but a commission from a client known only as Subgirl (Meital Dohan) sends him tumbling headlong into a world of obsession.
There’s a fantastic scene after Theo has finished shooting Subgirl — a session he thought would involve a game of tennis and instead turned into public masturbation — as he’s reviewing the photos on his computer. He’s both shell-shocked and utterly fascinated. What kind of person would do this? Nat walks in and sees the photos, and Theo tries to include her in his amazement. Messina shows us a man charged full of enthusiasm and trying to keep it below the surface, while Jones tries to shove down her own feelings of confusion and hurt. It’s as if they’re both justifying in their heads, “It’s just work; what’s the big deal?” without really believing it.
Messina and Jones are effortlessly great throughout the film. Many times, you can sense Shapiro just standing back and letting them interact with each other, and their naturalism and familiarity lend high stakes to the central relational disintegration at the heart of the film.
Shapiro is able to tonally shift with adeptness, moving from Nat and Theo’s relationship problems to the potentially dangerous fixation Theo has with Subgirl, who continues to hire him. Plot-wise, this element breaks down before it reaches what becomes a highly telegraphed conclusion, but the thrills are palpable while they last.
Monogamy is an assured fiction debut from Shapiro, and an excellent showcase of the dramatic talents of Jones and Messina, neither of whom has had a role quite like this before.
The DVD from Oscilloscope features a recut version of the song Jones sings in the film along with a couple deleted scenes and outtakes. A PDF of the screenplay by Shapiro and Evan M. Wiener can be accessed by a DVD-ROM drive, and the package also includes an essay by Amy Taubin and an excerpt from Shapiro’s forthcoming book You Can Be Right or You Can Be Married.