Despite its threat of a daring premise, The Unicorn never takes any actual risks.
Unwilling or unable to consider society’s broader ills, there remains a subset of filmmakers who have turned their attention forever inward. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Some would argue it is the most fundamental of artistic pursuits. These men—it almost always seems to be men—focus instead on their relationships and themselves (but not in that order). What these filmmakers often fail to account for is a matter of perspective. Or to put it another way: not everyone’s problems are as interesting, or novel, or even just plain funny, as they believe them to be. This unfortunate subset includes director Robert Schwartzman, of that clan of Schwartzmans, and it’s how we arrive at his new film.
The Unicorn revolves around Caleb (Nicholas Rutherford) and Malory (Lauren Lapkus), or Cal and Mal as they are “cutely” known. Under the bright California sun, this couple’s shared life appears to be quite pleasant. They’ve arrived in Palm Springs to celebrate Mal’s parents’ wedding anniversary, which doubles as an annual party for friends and family, and to withstand the pressure exerted on them regarding their own stalled lives. You see, Cal and Mal have been engaged for four years, suggesting some fear of commitment or internal strife. Good luck trying to figure out the cause though, or how it may be informed by the world these people live in. Unhelpfully, the film settles on a different solution: threesomes.
Thanks to an unwelcome admission from a party guest, Mal learns her parents Louis (John Kapelos) and Edie (Beverly D’Angelo) preserve the passion in their marriage by inviting a third party to join them. Repulsed, Mal and Cal flee back to their hotel room, only to realize they may in fact be less cool than Mal’s parents. What proceeds from a fairly innocuous beginning—bored people look for excitement—tumbles into a series of long sketches meant to explore Cal and Mal’s relationship while providing bits of comedy and sexiness in equal measure. To its credit, The Unicorn does indeed successfully balance both elements. It’s just that the end result is not particularly funny or sexy.
Case in point: Cal and Mal’s first stop on their night of adventure is a bar in which they meet a free spirit, Jesse (Lucy Hale), and dance around the threesome situation they believe they’re now in. The comedy here is supposed to be built around the barrier-testing of the leads and their eventual misread of the situation. Except the sequence just drags on with no real momentum. The film’s middle third, dedicated as it is to Beck Bennett’s louche pansexual nightclub owner Tyson, does gradually grind to a rhythm that works—but no noteworthy insights are allowed to punch through Cal and Mal’s bubble. That the pair ends up with an escort named April (Dree Hemingway) feels both inevitable and a tad cheap, as if they could just pay a sex worker to fix their entire boring relationship.
Despite its threat of a daring premise, The Unicorn never takes any actual risks. Instead, the film gradually fixates on Cal’s insecurity about sex—be it his nervousness about homosexuality (a common enough trope) or his fear of sexual inadequacy (ditto). Dorky and unremarkable, Rutherford does embody these qualities quite well, they just happen to be annoying. Meanwhile, Lapkus dutifully hits all her marks, but she’s rarely allowed a moment to stand alone as a sexual being. She’s forced to just commit to and enable the whole enterprise. In effect, you’ll likely find yourself asking: why does she need this guy at all? And then, stepping further back, another question: why do we need any of these guys?
Making movies for a living is cool, and if I was a Schwartzman—adjacent to the grand Coppola legend—I too would pursue it. But there’s something about the laziness of this film that sets the teeth on edge. The people in it do not feel attached to any version of reality to which any of us are likely to be engaged. The comedy, such as it is, can’t take off because Schwartzman and his team of writers (star Rutherford, Will Elliott and Kirk C. Johnson; all dudes, imagine that) never build to anything resembling a punchline. Every scene feels stepped on in an attempt to make things feel mumbling, improvised and “real.” But their sense of the actual world remains unfamiliar and useless. May your lives all be this comfortable.
There is, of course, an expansive tradition of emotionally searching movies, some recent and some of an older vintage. We don’t need to rhyme off all the good and bad examples here, but we do (or should) know when we see one of either kind. The best films of this type achieve an authentic honesty that can be difficult to duplicate. (Or, failing that, they have good jokes.) It’s how we arrive at The Unicorn’s last shot, one that strains to recall The Graduate in its final frames. Here again are two people staring off into an uncertain future with each other. The obvious difference? This pair is sitting in Palm Springs, on vacation, in their SUV.