Unmade Beds (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Slowly, the camera pans across the brick facade of a New York City apartment building, pausing only when it comes to a window. Inside, a nearly-nude couple is snuggling together, not yet awake to the new day. The camera moves on implacably, showing us other scenes: men and women naked, dressing, and dressed. One couple is arguing. A man is watching television. It's like an R- rated version of Rear Window, complete with the same endless fascination that accompanies any act of voyeurism. Yet there is no L.B. Jefferies to guide us here -- only the camera. We are alone in our watching, but cannot tear our eyes away.

However, as fascinating as the beginning of Unmade Beds is (and this technique of peering through open windows is repeated several times throughout the film), it's just a sidebar to the main story -- a little throw-in to catch our attention and remind us how much of life is about watching and experiencing vicariously. Unmade Beds is not a documentary, nor does it pretend to be one, but it's easy to forget the director's disclaimer and take every moment of the one- hundred minute running time as if it was as real as these glimpses through apartments windows are.

In 1995, British film maker Nicholas Barker (creator of the popular BBC TV series, "Signs of the Times") decided to make a film about the personals scene in New York City. Over a span of several months, his research team interviewed more than 400 potential candidates before eventually settling upon the four who are used. Working from the actors' own versions of their life's stories, Barker wrote a screenplay, which he constantly revised during the course of nine months of filming to reflect ongoing changes in the characters' lives. As he put it, "I'd say 90% of the script was based on behavior and language I actually observed. The rest is a pack of lies."

Unmade Beds introduces us to a quartet of unique individuals, all of whom regularly use the personals (either in print or on line) as a means of meeting others. These are the kind of ordinary people whom we encounter on the street and rarely give much thought to. Obviously, they're not the sort of men and women who are typically featured in motion pictures.

The first is Brenda Monte, a cash-strapped ex-lap dancer who is looking for a husband. But her reasons for marrying are quite pragmatic -- she's not interested in sex or love; she wants someone who's rich. In return for access to his money, she's willing to sleep with him a few times a month. Brenda is cocky, cynical, vulgar, and anti-Semitic, and isn't at all shy about displaying her size 38D chest for Barker's camera.

Michael De Stephano is an unmarried 40-year old whom (despite certain homophobic opinions) most women would classify as a nice guy. He's a desperate romantic who has been using the personals for 15 years in an attempt to find a wife. For him, however, Ms. Right doesn't seem to be out there, and it's getting him down. He manages to maintain a sense of gallows humor, however, as he quips about his latest scheme to find a mate: going to a "dating coach" to learn some new pointers.

The saddest of Barker's four subjects is Aimee Copp, a 28-year old woman who is overweight (225 pounds). For the most part, Aimee is the most buoyant character in the film, which makes it such a shock when she eventually breaks down, crying that "it's just so hard wanting something that you can't have." What she is referring to is the American Dream -- a husband and children. Like Michael, she's a romantic, and, like him, she can't find anyone. She frequently double-dates with her best friend, Laurie, but it's the slimmer Laurie, not Aimee, who gets all the passes.

Finally, there's Mikey Russo, a 54-year old security director and failed screenwriter who uses Internet dating services to find sexy women. Unlike Michael and Aimee, he's not interested in commitment. He wants an attractive woman who's willing to have a one-night stand. He's a sometimes-abrasive man who uses his beeper to extricate himself from blind dates with "mutts" (ugly women). Still, Mikey's not as callous as he first seems. At one point, he candidly admits that "I had my chances and I blew it. She's out there somewhere. I just haven't found her yet."

So, what in Unmade Beds is real, and what's made up? It's impossible to tell the difference, in part because writer/director Barker has concealed the seams so well, and in part because all four actors give natural, believable performances. Watching Unmade Beds is like watching a documentary, and this raises the age-old question about the impartiality of any documentary-like project. By their very presence, don't documentary film makers become part of the story, rather than just recording it? Movies like Paradise Lost and Dadetown have explored this dilemma from different, yet equally valid, points-of-view. Now, in its own quiet way, Unmade Beds has entered the fray.

Yet asking questions about documentary techniques was not Barker's primary motivation for making this motion picture. Rather, he wanted to study human behavior, and he wasn't uncomfortable about using voyeuristic and seemingly-invasive tactics to do so. Specifically, Barker was interested in how men and women interact in a society that is constantly becoming more hostile and impersonal. Day by day, we are withdrawing deeper into cocoons of isolation and loneliness. Unmade Beds examines this situation in an intensely fascinating and engaging manner. Few in the audience will not find some aspect of one of the characters that they can identify with. We all have similar impulses, whether we're single or married, happy or depressed, young or old, and something of who we are will be reflected in Brenda, Michael, Aimee, or Mikey. Unmade Beds is an example of the kind of brilliant film making that possesses both universal appeal and subtle power.

Unmade Beds (United States, 1997)

Director: Nicholas Barker
Cast: Brenda Monte, Michael De Stephano, Aimee Copp, Mikey Russo
Screenplay: Nicholas Barker
Cinematography: William Rexer II
U.S. Distributor: Chelsea/Acetelyene
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1997-10-30
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1