Things I Don't Understand


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Quick. Name a film based in New York in which an important plot development hinges on the use of an apartment, and in which the female lead is named Kubelick, and is an independent, strong-willed, sharp-tongued single woman who sleeps with too many of the wrong men, survives a suicide attempt, and finally ends up with the right guy.

If you're a film buff, you probably think I'm describing a film you have seen, Billy Wilder's acclaimed 1960 dramedy, The Apartment. I'm not. Apparently this premise comes around automatically about once per century, like the Halley's Comet of film concepts. The 21st century appearance of Comet Kubelick is called Things I Don't Understand, the second film of director David Spaltro, and his second collaboration with his lead actress, Molly Ryman.

So is the new film a rip-off? No, not at all. Like a lawyer who has to strain to create a defense for an obviously guilty client, I've fabricated a completely artificial case out of a few superficial facts. Apart from the factors which I strained to cobble together in the first paragraph, the two films have nothing whatsoever in common. Given a few ostensible similarities, the use of the Kubelick name in Things I Don't Understand seems like a simple tip o' the cap to one of IMDb's top 100 films of all time.

Things I Don't Understand is actually a philosophical film about a brilliant but aloof and damaged woman who is looking for some answers about life, and some reasons to continue participating in it. Her graduate thesis is on the human understanding of life after death, and that project eventually leads her to befriend one of her interview subjects, a young hospice patient who is nearing the very end. The bond between the two women doesn't necessarily increase the researcher's understanding of life after death, but it does help her appreciate how an obsession with such a topic can cause us to miss the value of life in the first place, in moments which need to be treasured, in a summer's lease with too short a date, as ol' Billy Shakespeare put it. The woman who doesn't want to live is revitalized by the other who doesn't want to die, and thus eventually makes real progress at reaching out to other people.

Needless to say, this is not a summer blockbuster or a franchise starter. It's the kind of independent film that Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards were probably meant to honor, back in the days when they were supposed to represent individualism, idealism and passion in filmmaking, if indeed there ever really was such a time. It's the kind of highly idiosyncratic film that dominated the counter-cultural era between 1967 and 1972, when films expressed ideas which flowed passionately out of the author without regard to the ultimate profitability of the project, and when audiences expected to walk out of a film discussing those ideas. These days, films seem to get financed and greenlighted (greenlit?) based on whether they can anchor a franchise which will eventually include many similarly titled films followed by ever-increasing Roman numerals. Back in the 60s and early 70s, authors just poured out their hearts on film, so that it would be impossible to imagine many of the best movies of that era spurring sequels. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest 2? Easy Rider 2? A Clockwork Orange 2? Harold and Maude 2? I'm not saying that the films of those days were better than today's. They were just more individual; more passionate; less mass-produced; less generic.

Things I Don't Understand would slip easily into that era, not just because it serves as the starting point of a dialogue between the author and his audience, but for other reasons as well. The author/director of this film is not lacking a sense of humor, for example, and fearlessly punctuates his very serious film with the kind of unexpected tone shifts and comic relief one might expect from the 60s and 70s. There are colorful, quirky background characters, for example, like Ms. Kubelick's two roommates. One of them is a stoned, pan-sexual punk rocker from France. The other is a female performance artist who stars in a far-off-Broadway play about dancing vaginas, and who seems oblivious to the utter absurdity of her "art."

In addition to its thoughtfulness, the film's great strength is that all of the characters are distinct, and seem real. I can believe that these people actually exist in real life, and that those real people could actually speak the exact lines in the script. On the other hand, the narrative weakness is that some of the late plot twists, especially a deus ex machina resolution to the roommates' housing crisis, seem contrived and false, and seem even more unbelievable in contrast to the down-to-earth, credible characters which have been so painstakingly established. I hate when movie reviewers use the word "organic," but in the sense that it means "less artificial," I wish there had been a more organic development of a sub-plot involving a buy-out of their apartment. Frankly, I didn't find that entire sub-plot necessary at all, but that's the choice the author made, and once made it should have been resolved without resorting to a miracle which made everything seem to wrap up too quickly and conveniently

That's a fairly minor annoyance, however. The big picture is this: Things I Don't Understand is not just a script with engaging ideas, but also contains acting and cinematography which are surprisingly good, given a tiny budget (reportedly under $200,000). More important to me, the film doesn't develop its serious ideas as an aloof intellectual exercise or a pretentious "tone poem," but within the context of an involving story with credible characters that interested me from the beginning and never prompted me to reach for the fast-forward button. Hell, this film not only held my attention for two hours, but it even got me to re-watch The Apartment immediately afterward, thus committing me to an additional two hours well-spent in New York.

Except now I want to slap Fred MacMurray around.

Awaiting DVD & Blu-Ray information


There are no major reviews online.


9.6 (!!)
IMDB summary (of 10)

I like the movie, but it's not going to finish at 9.6!


Unreleased at press time.


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Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Full disclosure:

I don't really know the writer/director of this film at all, but in the interest of honesty, I need to report that he is my Facebook friend.