“Dorfman in Love,” a new feature film opening on March 22, directed by Bradley Leong from an original screenplay by Wendy Kout, betrays its true origins almost from its opening shots of a sun-gilded Los Angeles and its suburbs.
Kout and producer Leonard Hill are longtime television veterans and the prime movers behind the project, and the film screams “sitcom” from the opening scene of Deb Dorfman (Sara Rue of “Malibu Country”) sparring with her perpetually dour widower father Burt (Elliott Gould at his most rumpled and teeth-achingly winsome). She’s an mega-competent accountant working for her glitz-obsessed, unappreciative brother Dan (Jonathan Chase), when she’s not bantering with the firm’s too-cute receptionist.
The setup is painfully obvious, a sort of gender inversion of the post-Woody Allen nebbish comedy, with everyone relying on poor old Deb while not leaving her the space to develop her own personality and life. If the material weren’t obvious enough, Kout and Leong take the cheapest of shortcuts to help a clueless audience, substituting fatuous pop songs for the dialogue that no one could be troubled to write.
The plot line is a tried-and-true one, although the social context is mildly interesting for anyone tracing a history of Los Angeles in the movies. Deb volunteers to house-sit for her lifelong crush, Jay (Johann Urb), a globe-trotting journalist whose stock-in-trade seems to be flashing teeth and crashing clichés. He’s off to Kabul on an unnamed assignment, so Deb has a week to fix up his new loft, feed his cat, get out from under her family and professional obligations and become a grown-up. (She’s getting off easy. She has 90 minutes to do what a sitcom manages in one-third the time.)
Of course, she finds the ideal neighbor, Cookie (Haaz Sleiman, best known to U.S. audiences from Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor”), and the ideal neighborhood, the city’s apparently revitalized downtown loft district. She also discovers the heavily promoted joys of L.A.’s new mass transit system, which ought to have money invested in the film, starts hanging out with a couple of sexually voracious supermodels and finds her emotional destiny.
There’s nothing wrong with this story; it has worked fine for over a hundred years of cinema and, frankly, it’s nice to see it put to use for a female — and overtly Jewish — protagonist. Jewishness is used as a sort of comedy shorthand and is almost irrelevant to the film, but that’s the least of the movie’s problems. The main dilemma is that Kout and Leong don’t do very much to earn our allegiance for the eponymous Ms. Dorfman. For the first two-thirds of the film, the character is painfully underwritten, perhaps on the assumption that this isn’t the first episode of the show and we know everyone already, an assumption that doesn’t fly in a feature film, and one that insults the character and the audience. In the last third, Rue’s charm begins to do the work that the script and direction haven’t and the film actually comes to life, albeit sluggishly.
Therein lies another problem with “Dorfman in Love”: its stop-and-start rhythmic dysfunction. The film relies too heavily on the lazy device of the music-driven montage, which crops up at the most inappropriate times; the montages hamstring the forward progress of the narrative and make the entire project look like a TV commercial for a bad wine. Character development is crippled by the herky-jerky rhythms that resul, and scenes never build; they just cough fitfully to the next phantom station break.
“Dorfman in Love” opens Friday, March 22 at the Cinema Village (22 E. 12th St.); for information, call (212) 924-3363. The film will also be available from DirectTV.