There are two problems that prevented Collaborator from being the thought-provoking character study it so clearly wanted to be. Firstly, writer/director/star Martin Donovan could not come to a decision as to what he wanted it to be about; it plays like a shopping list of concepts that he picked at random and only examined at arm’s length, never once allowing them to develop into anything or even to let them be resolved. Secondly, the concepts are so manufactured, so innately cinematic, that they could never engage the viewer at any level beyond those of technique and performance. Logically and emotionally, there’s nothing much to grab on to. I’m sure that Donovan found them all interesting, but they have to be of interest to the audience if they’re to actually work. In order for us to find them interesting, we have to be told what we should be paying attention to.
Donovan has cast himself as Robert Longfellow, a New York playwright whose works of late have been critical disasters and whose latest effort closed after only two weeks on Broadway. He hasn’t seen much of his wife, Alice (Melissa Auf der Maur), or his two children, and phone conversations between husband and wife are obviously strained. In due time, he finds himself in his hometown of Los Angeles. In part, it’s to find some writing work; he has already been given an offer to polish a screenplay for what I think was supposed to be a teen slasher film. Mostly, however, it’s to reunite with his old flame, a British actress named Emma Stiles (Olivia Williams), who got her start in Longfellow’s plays in New York. Quite obviously, there’s unfinished business between them.
To top everything off, he’s visiting his mother, Irene (Katherine Helmond), who he feels shouldn’t be living alone anymore. Perhaps she is up in years and slower to keep up, but it never once seemed as if she was ailing. So then why does Longfellow seem so worried about her? It could, perhaps, stem from guilt and anger; for both of them, the elephant in the room is Longfellow’s brother, who joined the military and ultimately died serving in Vietnam. Longfellow, like many progressives and artists of his generation, vehemently opposed the war and believed all the soldiers’ deaths, including his brother’s, were in vain. Irene’s politics are not made known, but it’s obvious that she has emotionally kept herself at somewhat of a distance. Neither of them appears to feel very much.
Quite unexpectedly, Longfellow is reunited with his childhood friend, Gus Williams (David Morse), who, at age fifty-seven, still lives across the street with his mother (Eileen Ryan), who does little more than exist. An ex-con with a police record we suspect is long and extensive, Williams comes back into Longfellow’s life as a sad, gruff, foulmouthed loser perpetually numb on beer and pot, the former of which is never in short supply. One night, when Longfellow was supposed to meet with Emma – and you should know, this comes after spending the day at her home and kissing her – Williams pulls out a gun and takes Longfellow hostage as squads of police cars and news vans begin clogging the street. We don’t yet know what Williams did, but he’s making it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want to go back to jail.
What follows is a well-intentioned but unsuccessful attempt at delving deeper into the minds of these men. In an effort to ease the situation, Longfellow arranges to have Williams talk with Emma, his favorite actress, over a cell phone. It doesn’t work too well because the SWAT team keeps attempting to negotiate with Williams via the landline. Longfellow gets back in touch with Alice and tries his best to ease her mind, unaware that the media has somehow obtained a video of him and Emma kissing. Between these moments, the two have unconvincing and rather inappropriate conversations about the writing process, all of which eventually turn into narratively pretentious improv sessions. And then they inevitably get into a huge fight over politics, the conservative Williams having a very different opinion of the American military.
On the basis of this description, you’d think Collaborator was a rich, thematically complex film. It isn’t. None of the ideas mentioned above are allowed to come to fruition. They’re introduced, and then left to go stale. Of course, it’s not as if developing them fully would have helped matters much. That’s because every idea presented in this film is little more than a contrivance. Here is a screenplay that could not have evolved organically; it comes off more like a writing assignment, one in which Donovan was instructed to gather familiar scenarios and then find a way to string them together. This wouldn’t have been a problem had he managed to resolve any of them satisfactorily. The end is a disappointment, not just because of the emotional loose ends that weren’t tied up but also because of a rather showy and ill-fitting blurring of fantasy and reality.