MOVIE REVIEW: Mercury in Retrograde





In astrology circles, the planet Mercury is believed to control communication, travel, and technology.  Four times a year, the planet passes the Earth in orbit around the sun and, in doing so, an optical illusion makes it appear to stop and spin backward.  These periods are called “Mercury Retrograde” and it is the juicy metaphorical motif used to inspire Chicago filmmaker Michael Glover Smith’s new film Mercury in Retrograde.

LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF “MERCURY RETROGRADE”-- Clarifying further, each of these orbital swings of solar system’s cardinal planet last three weeks with possible “shadow” periods that can appear before and after.  During these times, the aforementioned elements of communication, travel, and technology go haywire.  For the curious, the cautionary list of dos and don’ts is expansive.  Be careful, the next one starts on December 3rd.

With that notion of curious and unhinged implosion looming in mind, Mercury in Retrograde follows three Chicago couples as they retreat for a carefree three-day weekend in the Saugatuck area of southwest Michigan.  The married duo of the bunch, Jack and Golda (Open Tables director Jack C. Newell and Alana Arenas), play hosts to their unmarried friends Richard (Kevin Wehby), a bit of a layabout, and the French-born librarian Isabelle (Rubber’s Roxane Mesquida).  Joining them are the lovebirds Wyatt and Peggy (Shane Simmons and Contracted star Najarra Townsend), a newer dating couple to their circle.  They descend on a quaint lakeside cabin outside Fennville with lawn chairs, firepits, and woodland sounds for ambiance and wind-down time on the itinerary. 

In a dynamic opening scene, we meet these six people though Peggy reading each person’s detailed current horoscopes from the newspaper.  Sharing beers and laughs under the forest foliage on their arrival afternoon, they each hear a little warning about the titular cosmic paradox at play and weigh in with reactions that stand as peeks into their personalities.  From then on, the astrology takes a backseat to people orbiting other people, some familiar and unfamiliar with each other, their histories, and their idiosyncrasies.  

Watching more interaction and communication unfold, Peggy becomes our narrator, the pusher of questions, and the sharer of issues that spin wheels, stroke chins, and raise eyebrows.  Splitting the couplings, the men earmark their own time for disc golf and a male-only book club night dissecting Dashiell Hammett’s Ned Beaumont tale The Glass Key over cigars and whiskey.   Meanwhile, the ladies make due with yoga and a pair of trips to town for a farmers market and nighttime drinks at the dive bar.  Once the alcohol flows for both sides, some topics feed off the inebriation with delight while others trigger disquiet.

The hearty onslaught of verbose conversations, swapped stories, and bared souls come from the typed pen of Michael Glover Smith, writing and directing his second feature-length film following 2015’s Cool Apocalypse.  The rich rising action and build-up of his characterization and their revealed inner selves are utterly fascinating.  The first hour masks what some might take to be hipster drivel of intellectuals pretending to rough it only to hide the real deep-seated flaws and emotions hiding underneath the pleasantries and button-up shirts.  Nothing is too concussive until personal truths rear their ugly heads by the end of the shared weekend.  Public musings and private confessions get louder and more pointed to observe the further Smith takes them.  

LESSON #2: UNSPOKEN SECRETS ALWAYS FESTER-- Why is it sometimes easier to tell strangers and lesser acquaintances personal secrets than one’s own significant other?  Isn’t that romantic partner often billed with the praise of “I can tell them anything” or “I can be my true self around them.”  If one really talks that talk and walks that walk, unspoken secrets wouldn’t exist and decay a relationship from the inside over time.  Yet, here we are with six people all in different levels of relationships and all with insecurities and factors they keep from their partners.  Have the tough talks and clear the air before the toxicity cannot be corrected.

Smith’s words of mounting depth and weight turn idle chatter into soapboxes that eventually become proverbial fortifications built around questioned principles and shattered wills.  The ensemble of performers delivers on the required heavy lifting from the director to make the multitude of human flaws believable yet still approachable.  Jack C. Newell and Alana Arenas are particularly engaging as the cooler heads and softer hearts of compromise.  Roxane Mesquida is an enchanting wildcard matched against Najarra Townsend’s constant arc of soul examination.  Only a mildly rushed epilogue of aftermath snips away at any greater potential than what was already achieved.

Mercury in Retrograde may come from grassroots filmmaking, but you wouldn’t know it from sunny polish given to the production.  Director of photography Jason Chiu shot the sugar-honey-iced-tea out of these locations.  His capture of rotating perspectives, especially in that opening circular scene of blurry shifts between foreground and background, coupled with slow zooms and excellent framing variations of occupied space is outstanding throughout the film.  Backed often by snippets of Charles-Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Carnival of Animals” and songs by Wolfgang Strutz, the visual layers of rustic natural canopy, beach breeze, tavern neon glow, and back patio incandescent lighting all soak up our eyes and attention right alongside the incisive narrative of taciturn timebombs.

LESSON #3: THE LIMITS OF HONESTY AMONG FRIENDS-- Honesty is said to be the best policy, but it can come with consequences.  Continuing the line of thinking from Lesson #2, friendship should be a safe space for honest conversation.  Trusted friends, new or old, should be able to accept the honesty shared from other friends.  However, we all know some folks can only take so much or are not equipped to handle what they receive.  Watch honesty go too far often in this film.

Mercury in Retrograde recently won the Best Narrative Feature award at the 2017 Full Bloom Film Festival.  It makes its Chicago premiere at the 4th annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival on November 30.  Smith, Townsend, Arenas, Newell, Simmons, and Wehby will participate in a post-screening Q&A moderated by Reel Honest Reviews and The Daily Journal film critic Pamela Powell.  Smith has an impressive hidden gem on his hands and bigger audiences deserve to tackle this forceful drama first-hand.