The alcoholic writer trope is something that has been done to death, not just in film, but television, theatre, and even music from time to time. An aching hatred for oneself drowned out by the bottle, sorrows of the past wiped clean by the purifying aura of spirits, liqueur and booze. Guest Artist is an adaptation of Jeff Daniels’ play of the same name, with him taking his 2006 efforts to the screen in this, a starring role playing a washed-up playwright who finds himself stuck in a small Michigan town. It’s as humdrum and bland as you’d expect, but with the name value of Daniels alone, it piqued my interest with embarrassing ease.
With the film depending so much on its writing, Guest Artist surprisingly falters from time to time. I’ve no doubt that this would work far better on a stage in front of a live audience, as the performances feel like they’re feeding off of an invisible crowd. Here, the elongated pauses and quips feel artificial and strange, we spend much of our time in a train station, nothing but exposition from two characters who feel flat and one-dimensional. The plucky, young apprentice collides headfirst in his initial meeting with the egotistical drunk, and the chemistry between Daniels and Thomas Macias is palatable, but the writing doesn’t serve them justice.
Although the film doesn’t grow and prosper as well as it should, Daniels and Macias do have at least some chemistry with one another. The setting for their encounter with one another is a place where all of their interactions can come together with explosive dynamics, but Daniels’ writing here feels rather outdated, or at the very least, oddly underwhelming. It did grow on me a little bit though, moments throughout that I did actually enjoy, but these are few and far between. For such a short running time, it’s amazing how much of this feels like filler, the toned-down style it takes when adapting its theatre play is rather sad, the theatrics are reduced to shouting fits and acts of aggression that feel out of the blue and uncoordinated.
It seems rather ironic that the death of theatre is championed by a man who is best known for his work in cinema and television. I’m not questioning the love Daniels has for the art form, as that much is clear from the very beginning, but whether or not his heart is really in this adaptation of his work is dubious at best. Guest Artist toys with so many clichés and foolhardy moments, most of it feeling like dialogue made solely to prop up the nature of the leading man. More time is spent on churning out a leading man who is dislikeable, but Busfield’s heavy-handed need to make him feel like an engaging, interesting character, falls flat entirely. The only saving grace is how short the piece is, and how Daniels is at least catering us with more leading roles.