"Flannel Pajamas" is a nonstop talkfest that intimately charts the arc of a relationship from its intoxicating beginning to its frayed dissolution. Much better written than directed by longtime distribution exec Jeff Lipsky, pic features frequently lively dialogue peppered by acute observations into the ebb and flow of amorous interactions between intelligent individuals. Film's emotional accessibility and strong lead performances by Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson suggest further fest rounds and possible specialized theatrical play, although the incessant gab finally wears out its welcome and will limit audience interest to upscale urban situations.
With no background as a dramatist and just one previous feature, the 1997 "Childhood's End," on his resume, Lipsky does an impressive job establishing a rapport between the principal characters, as well as between characters and the viewer.
We meet Stuart (Kirk) and Nicole (Nicholson) at a Gotham diner in the middle of their first date, accompanied by mutual friends and, at the next table, by Stuart's eccentric brother Jordan (Jamie Harrold). The warmly humorous conversation flows with a seemingly effortless charge, and there's no doubt where this relationship is headed.
In fact, it's hard to imagine how things could be better between them. The sex is great (pic is frank on this score, with plenty of blunt talk and full-frontal nudity), and the highly verbal (but not glib) Stuart always says the right thing to reassure the sometimes moody Nicole. Given Stuart's leading-man looks, quick mind and stated desire to make Nicole happy, he's got it all going, and she has an unaffected, down-to-earth quality, that reflects her Montana roots and sets her apart.
In fact, when Nicole takes Stuart to Missoula for Christmas, the result is not an "Annie Hall"- or "The Family Stone"-style weirdo gathering but a virtual love-feast, one that smoothes the way for a marriage proposal (a particularly fine and unorthodox scene played out in bed) and wedding. (One unconvincing element is the Montana compound, which looks more like the Eastern U.S. in autumn than the far north during the holidays.)
Once the couple settles into real life in Stuart's 36th floor condo with a view, they get down to brass tacks: Nicole wants to start a catering business; they agree not to have a child for two years, although Nicole soon begins agitating for a dog, and, eventually, Stuart gets an opportunity to start his own business.
One dramatic shortcoming is how little Stuart's career is integrated into their lives. He's a Broadway theater marketing and promotions wiz, and people in showbiz, particularly someone as gregarious and good-looking as Stuart, tend to have a wide circle of acquaintances and lead lives that revolve around their work. Strangely, however, he almost never discusses his projects or friends, and despite the film's concentration on the minute workings of Stuart and Nicole's emotional life, the latter seems unrealistically cocooned from a social world that would almost automatically be a major part of their routine.
After tragedy strikes Stuart's family and multiple disappointments hit Nicole, he evolves positively, while she withdraws into sullen numbness. Religious issues -- he's Jewish, she's Catholic -- are dragged in that seemed so irrelevant earlier on they weren't even mentioned in relation to the wedding.
Whereas in the beginning, the sense of heightened naturalism is strong enough to sustain the proceedings without much structure, the final stretch would have benefited from a stronger dramatic hand to accelerate the denouement; one becomes anxious for resolution considerably before the two-hour point.
Visually, the film is without flair or ambition, conveying no sense of atmosphere or mood.
But the performances put it over. Kirk, best known for his starring turn in the "Angels in America" telefilm, is winning as a bright young man who does not shy from intimacy and is ready to put his all into a committed relationship. Nicholson, freckled and thin, has a natural, real woman appeal and discreetly puts across a full range of emotions without ever coming across as actressy. Harrold is a scene-stealer as Stuart's effusive, ill-fated brother.
Camera (DuArt color), Martina Radwan; editor, Sara Corrigan; music, Paul Hsu; production designer, Lent Clayton; art director, Peter Gates; costume designer, Amy Bradshaw; sound (Dolby Digital), Kevin Seaman; line producer, Tevin Adelman; associate producer, Christopher Pizzo; assistant director, Sheri Davani; casting, Patricia Dicerto. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2006. Running time: 124 MIN.