‘Guest Artist’: Film Review

Jeff Daniels adapted ‘Guest Artist,’ his stage play centered on the perils of hero worship, and stars in the two-hander as a burned-out alcoholic playwright.

Small-scale, no-frills and lo-fi, Guest Artist feels like a homegrown project mounted by a couple of talented guys from Michigan. Those guys happen to be Timothy Busfield, who directs, and Jeff Daniels, who scripted and stars. Daniels’ effortlessly commanding performance as a blocked and bitter writer is the chief draw in the not particularly taut two-hander. Though its running time is brief and a lot of the writing is sharp, the tug-of-war between a onetime literary lion and his wide-eyed No. 1 fan lacks the necessary tension to make the drama’s outcome matter.

Daniels adapted his own play, which was originally staged at the Purple Rose Theater Company that he founded in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, where most of the film was shot. He brings a strong ear for language to his exploration of jaded experience in collision with openhearted innocence. But it’s a collision we’ve seen many times before, and though Busfield’s eye for scene-setting locations helps to open up the story, the feature never manages to shake off its obvious stage roots or a certain fusty, formulaic structure. Having premiered at Santa Barbara before booking a berth at the Beloit festival in Wisconsin, this not-quite-ready-for-theatrical Guest will continue to find warm welcomes at local festivals.

The Bottom Line

An uneven vehicle for an assured lead performance.

The film opens with what is by far its most powerful sequence, set in Manhattan’s theater district at Christmastime. Busfield and cinematographer Willy Busfield (the director’s son) capture the unique glamour of Times Square, and the geometry of the Manhattan cityscape, with fresh energy. This wordless nighttime montage, tinged with alone-in-the crowd desolation and set to the elegant emotion of Brian Stokes Mitchell’s rendition of “The Christmas Song,” views Daniels’ barfly from a discreet distance. It ends as the song does, after two and a half minutes, with the first clear shot of his face: weathered, grizzled and achingly glum in the harsh morning light — a money shot if ever there was one, its sock-in-the-gut impact unmatched by any of the ensuing single-location pas de deux that makes up the bulk of the story.

Daniels’ Joseph Harris, a playwright who once upon a time won a Pulitzer and was the toast of the town, is about to board a train for the Michigan burg whose theater company has commissioned a new work for him. As his fed-up agent (a well-cast Erika Slezak, longtime star of One Life to Live) ungently reminds him, that Podunk assignment is the best he can hope for in his dissolute state. Their bitchy barbs over daytime drinks have a tartness that’s sorely lacking in the rest of the film, however bone-deep the rage, disdain and general disappointment Daniels brings to his role.

The big man arrives in the small town, and the action, set mainly at the train station, soon devolves into a mannered back-and-forth that’s more tiring than involving. Having poured countless minis down his gullet, with something far closer to desperation than enjoyment, a plastered Harris focuses his wide-ranging anger on Kenneth Waters (Thomas Macias), the aspiring playwright and ultra-fan who’s late to meet him at the station. Kenneth is the kind of untempered disciple who spouts his idol’s quotes at him (sometimes after a googling refresher). Believe it or not, he carries one of Harris’ books with him, as well as — suspension of disbelief required — clippings of the playwright’s interviews. The latter come in handy for quote-spouting after a fulminating Harris destroys Kenneth’s smartphone.

Amid effusive praise, blunt refusals, shouty manifesto-ing and baseball-bat wielding, the drama pits earnest newbie exuberance against cynicism and self-destruction. Whether Harris even has new material to fulfill his commission is the intended crux of the matter, but it generates little heat in the telling. The material’s questions about integrity, courage and resilience, and what it takes to defy family expectations and become an artist, are too generic to pack a punch. Even so, Daniels, confident and generous as he plays opposite a far less experienced actor, imbues his well-written lines with a world-weariness and searing intelligence.

Peppered throughout the central duo’s arguing and bargaining are reaction shots of the stationmaster (Richard McWilliams) that hint at a subplot — or something — that never quite materializes, although the character delivers a few pointed observations.

Within the station setting, Busfield keeps things moving, not always avoiding self-consciousness in the shifting placement of actors and camera. He and his DP are better at conveying a sense of place outside the walls of the railroad waiting room — the silos of the landmark Jiffy Mix plant, the postcard-pretty downtown and, beyond, the edge-of-town darkness, even when it’s the setting for a sequence that feels like padding, reconnecting Kenneth with the girl he pined for in high school (McKara Bechler), who’s not incidentally named Hope.

A title card at the beginning of the movie says that it’s “based on an incident which became a play which became this film.” Whatever its real-life inspiration, there’s no question that it’s a family affair. Busfield’s wife, Melissa Gilbert, serves as a producer, and Daniels’ sons participated in the production — Lucas as a camera operator and Ben, the writer-star’s frequent musical collaborator, as composer of a score that’s sometimes too plucky, sometimes perfectly understated. It’s the handmade, from-the-heart quality of this flawed feature that makes it noteworthy; the drama is less memorable than the fact that two accomplished industry vets stepped away from Hollywood and into their own backyard.

Venue: Beloit International Film Festival
Production company: Grand River Productions
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Thomas Macias, Richard McWilliams, Erika Slezak, McKara Bechler, Ruth Crawford, Lynch Travis, Dan Johnson 
Director: Timothy Busfield
Screenwriter: Jeff Daniels
Producers: Michael Lohmann, Alyssa Loveall, Michael Ferdie, Michael A. Alden, Timothy Busfield, Jeff Daniels, Melissa Gilbert
Executive producers: Donald Clark
Director of photography: Willy Busfield
Production designer: Gae Buckley
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Editor: Alyssa Loveall
Music: Ben Daniels
Casting director: Guy Sanville

75 minutes