In 2023, COVID-19 remains a nagging if mercifully less lethal presence in our day-to-day lives, and with that small blessing, epiphanies about how the pandemic changed our world as we know it have increasingly lost real estate in popular culture. This puts Italian director Cecilia Miniucchi’s screenlife film Life Upside Down in an unenviable spot; even a 2021 release date would have benefited her medium and her story, because at that time screenlife films, like Natalie Morales’ excellent Language Lessons, could occupy a sweet spot, neither too close to the worst of the outbreak nor too far away that cinematic reminders hit as tasteless.
But the structure Miniucchi devised for Life Upside Down required waiting until her cast could be on set together to finish the film, an ambition that’s admirable but also detrimental to its impact. Her film feels oddly rushed, as if the basic conceit struck Miniucchi too long after people started making abrupt, and arguably premature, returns to what now passes as normalcy. Reality brickwalls that reading; production kicked off when Los Angeles’ lockdown began, with Miniucchi, Bob Odenkirk, Radha Mitchell, Danny Huston, Jeanie Lim, and Rosie Fellner collaborating by Zoom to stitch together three interconnected stories about what the rich and well-off sacrificed under COVID’s rigors.
Maybe that’s an unfair characterization. What affected average folks all over the planet on account of COVID also affected these actors, their supporting cast, and Miniucchi’s trim below-the-line crew. At the same time, Life Upside Down focuses on a trio of primary characters ensconced in luxury and security that average folks couldn’t afford (or which the pandemic robbed them of), so the film makes a big ask by expecting viewers to care much about art gallery problems rather than other problems of that time, like food scarcity and dwindling bank accounts.
John (Odenkirk) is a successful L.A. art dealer, and a successful two-timer nursing an affair with Clarissa (Mitchell), a college professor, while his wife Sue (Lim) is none the wiser. We see the lovers sneak off for afternoon delight during the film’s opening, where John’s gallery is abuzz with art-hungry, deep-pocketed socialites; Clarissa’s friend, Paul (Huston), a successful writer and potential buyer, has his eye on a couple of pieces, as does his younger wife Rita (Fellner). Life looks good. Then it’s turned upside down, in a title sequence where the city’s skyline slowly flips 180, in case the subtleties of the movie (including its title) are lost on us. Suddenly life sucks. Everyone’s stuck at home entertaining themselves as much as they can, while John and Clarissa keep sneaking around telling each other how badly they want to screw.
There’s a fascinating bit of drama in conducting extramarital activities over a necessary and government-imposed distance. Life Upside Down tries to keep that drama as its throughline, something its construction fails. Where Language Lessons maintains rhythm and momentum by having its two stars, Morales and Mark Duplass, on screen “with” each other, courtesy of video calls, as much as possible, Life Upside Down takes the opposite approach. Outside of the opening and conclusion, filmed after lockdown procedures lifted, we never see the primary cast interact with one another, only Huston with Fellner and Odenkirk with Lim, whose face is almost never on camera.
It’s a bummer move that robs Life Upside Down of all tension and stakes, as well as chemistry. There’s nothing more awkward than watching actors this talented talk into their phones or tablets, the blocking only offering occasional glimpses of the person on the other line, especially when the actors seem to feel that awkwardness themselves. That each of them appears more at ease on their own is a big tell. This is particularly true of Mitchell, flitting around her home in yoga pants, purring in bed, or losing her patience running remote classes with her obviously frustrated students. Mitchell smolders as Clarissa, sex-deprived and lonesome, slowly loses her wits. That’s a story. John pining for her while simultaneously dropping the bag at every opportunity, including a spectacularly botched birthday present, isn’t.
The real story, though, is the movie’s meta-glimpse into the lives of actors unable to go out and act. Life Upside Down is a clunky, graceless movie, but it’s utterly engrossing as a stage for letting Odenkirk, Mitchell, Huston and the rest vent their own stir craziness. If you think of the film as more of an outlet than a functioning narrative, it gains value. But that reflective detail isn’t enough to hold our attention, no matter how likable and gifted its authors.
Director: Cecilia Miniucchi
Writer: Cecilia Miniucchi
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Radha Mitchell, Danny Huston, Jeanie Lim, Rosie Fellner, Cyrus Pahlavi
Release Date: January 27, 2023
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.