Struggling to strike a balance between heavy existential drama, magical realism and quirky romantic comedy, Jason James’ sophomore feature Entanglement attempts a mishmash of tones in what ultimately amounts to an earnest if highly strained examination of love, despair and personal accountability. The film centers on Ben (Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch), a deeply depressed recent divorcée who sees one’s life as a series of interconnected events that propel one down different pathways and avenues of existence. In his mind, each decision a person makes creates a new reality for themselves, and he believes that if he can locate the exact moment his life became so miserable, he can get back on his original track and return to a life of happiness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, James doesn’t put a lot of stock in this metaphysical concept. Instead, he treats Ben’s homegrown theories as a kind of emotional framework, creating a personal and idiosyncratic perspective that occasionally helps to smooth out the film’s clunky and abrupt mood swings.

James’ desired tone is evident from the start. We open on Ben mid-suicide attempt, with a garden hose attached to an idling car that’s pumping exhaust fumes into his bedroom. When an unseen motorist drives the car away, he considers a few other methods, but various unforeseen circumstances—the toaster’s electrical cord is too short to reach the bathtub, and his pocket knife is too dull to properly slit his wrists—keep him away from death’s door. Six months later, he learns his parents had plans to adopt a daughter before they found out they were pregnant with him, going so far as to have the papers drawn up and a newborn baby girl already selected. Ben, of course, becomes convinced that reuniting with his long lost “sibling” is exactly what he needs to steer his life back to a happy reality. As fate (or predictable screenplay contrivances) would have it, Hanna (Jess Wexler), the sexy free spirit who flirts with him in a drug store, turns out to be the almost-sister in question. Love, of course, begins to bloom, creating scenes of saccharine surrealism, melodrama and sentimental romance that are as clumsily intertwined as Ben’s cosmic timelines.

As Ben and Hanna fall for each other, sharing their conveniently similar views on “quantum entanglement” and the interconnectivity of existence, the director offers various clues that not everything is quite as it seems. You could refer to these clues as breadcrumbs, but in this script, they’re more like breadboulders. It’s plain as day to see what’s really going on between the manic pixie Hanna and the forlorn mope Ben, and there’s an embarrassing amount of profundity imbued with each twist and “reveal,” as if James and screenwriter Jason Filiatrault were convinced that the audience couldn’t possibly have seen any of it coming. (Note to filmmakers everywhere: We’ve all seen Fight Club.) That said, there is a certain element to Hanna’s characterization that offers an intriguing commentary on the nature of depression and the hyper-specific ways people tend to author their own grief and suffering, particularly through the lens of wounded masculinity. Ben, it’s revealed, wasn’t always the nicest guy, to the point that he might have even deserved getting dumped by his wife. His method of coping, then, can be seen as an extension of not just his fractured psyche, but also his fractured ego. More than his divorce, Ben needs to get over himself, and maybe spend more time with his psychiatrist.

Such personal stakes set the stage for worthwhile drama, but too much of the film’s approach is confusing and implacable. We’re expected to take Ben’s misery seriously, but James also pokes fun at his misfortune. Gallows humor is one thing, but indulging the director’s embarrassing affectations is something else entirely: The burst of fireworks that accompany a first kiss, a public pool full of imaginary jellyfish and some awkwardly staged cartoon deer are just a few of the cutesy trivializations that sugarcoat rather than deepen the film’s inclinations toward black comedy. Which is kind of a shame when you consider Middleditch is perfectly suited to deliver on the likable sad sack routine, especially when presented with themes as legible and digestible as those here. But Entanglement is neither likable enough nor sad enough in its own right, so his performance, much like the film itself, remains stuck in the phlegmatic middle.

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