Film & TV

Film Review: ‘Unplugging’: Rookie Director Debra Neil-Fisher’s Train Wreck Debut

BY Michael Clark TIMEApril 26, 2022 PRINT

R | 1h 34min | Comedy| April 22, 2022  (USA)

There’s some good news for anyone affiliated in any way with either “The Desperate Hour” or “Blacklight.” However inferior or wanting your films might have been, neither holds a stink candle to the unmitigated disaster that is “Unplugging,” the debut directorial effort from longtime editor Debra Neil-Fisher.

The cutter of over 40 mostly critically panned feature and TV movies dating back to the late 1980s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Neil-Fisher’s first foray behind the camera and calling the shots would go down in flames. Yet no one could have predicted the rapid rate of descent and molten heat level of the plane itself.

True Failure Is a Team Effort

It is almost impossible for a single person to sabotage a movie so thoroughly and, in Neil-Fisher’s defense, she received a great deal of assistance from screenwriters Matt Walsh and Brad Morris. While both divided their time between playing generic character roles on TV and in film, each has dabbled in penning scripts for both mediums, and their collective resumes are on a similar, mediocre par as Neil-Fisher. “Unplugging” marks their first and, hopefully, final collaboration.

In all fairness, Walsh and Morris came up with an interesting and topical (if not original) concept: people’s addiction to electronic devices and social media in general and smart phones, in particular. Everything worthwhile in this movie takes place during the opening title sequence.

Jeanine (Eva Longoria) is a former attorney now employed by a Chicago branding company, which is similar to the job her husband Dan (Walsh) used to have before he “quit.” He now hawks his own home brew hot sauce online and does OK, but it is only supposed to be temporary. As someone who has made and sold hot sauce on the Internet in the past, I can speak with some degree of authority in stating that Dan’s kitchen sink method to “crafting” sauce is woefully off-the-mark.

Electronic Addiction

During a typical morning in their household, Jeanine is panicking because she can’t find her phone. She and a reluctant Dan scour the household while their personality-challenged daughter keeps calling her number. At long last, the phone is found—in the shower. It’s not terribly unusual for people to take their phone with them into the powder room, but the shower?! Jeanine is an addict in every sense of the word.

The frustration on Dan’s face is palpable but also hypocritical. His phone is third on his priority list after chat rooms and video games, things he does full time after dropping his wife off at work. It is after the premature death of his sagely UPS driver friend Juan (Al Madrigal) that Dan decides life is too short and it is time to get his priorities in order.”

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Eva Longoria as Jeanine and Matt Walsh as Dan in “Unplugging.” (Vertical Entertainment)

Never quite able to thoroughly convince Jeanine that they need some down time, Dan drags her kicking and only slightly screaming to a remote cabin somewhere in Indiana to detox. The problem is that both of them take their phones along, thus sabotaging the premise of the entire movie by the filmmakers who shoot themselves in the foot mere minutes after it starts.

Unimaginative Supporting Characters

For the next 90 or so minutes, the couple search for reception signals and power sources while intermittently interacting with a handful of the “colorful,” eccentric, and often dangerous locals.

First up on the hit parade is Gil (Keith David), the owner and operator of the nameless town’s only restaurant-convenience store. After serving Jeanine and Dan the dinner of his choice, Gil begins doing tequila shots with them while spouting stream-of-consciousness gibberish reminiscent of any number of drug-addled Beat-era poets. Also in attendance is Perkins (Leah Thompson), a tea-totaling, off-the-grid, full-tilt conspiracy theorist dressed in camouflage with a pet raccoon in tow.

A third act encounter involves the now perpetually bickering couple hiding from a backwoods guy with a rifle and wearing only briefs and combat boots, attempting to put them down for trespassing. It is here where Jeanine attempts to euthanize a chicken (whose leg she just broke) by chewing on aspirin and spitting the drug-saliva mixture into the bird’s mouth. Picture that if you will: pure comic genius.

In the spirit of dreadful past black comedies such as “Mr. Wrong,” “The Cable Guy,” and the misguided Aubrey Plaza vehicle “Ingrid Goes West,” “Unplugging” puts us through a series of strewn-together skits that are designed to be knowing and funny, but are instead embarrassingly cringe-worthy and patently distasteful. Bad taste certainly has its place in movies but not in a romantic comedy posing as a road flick.

Zero Sparks

Lacking anything resembling chemistry, Walsh and Longoria appear highly uncomfortable with each other the entire time and seem to be present solely for (what is likely meager) paychecks.

This is a particularly sad state of affairs for Longoria who, after several fits and starts in TV and film, became a household name as part of the ensemble cast of the wildly popular “Desperate Housewives” show on ABC. Even while appearing on the show (2004–2012) Longoria starred in one miserable flop after another, a streak only briefly interrupted in 2019 with the live-action adaptation of “Dora the Explorer.”

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Promotional ad for “Unplugging.” (Vertical Entertainment)

If you are in the market for a movie which treats the subject of device addiction with far more care and insight, check out the sci-fi drama “Her” (2013) starring Joaquin Phoenix, the thin but occasionally gut-busting comedy “Jexi” (2019), and “Screened Out,” a brilliant, ear-pinning documentary from 2020.

Don’t blame the message here; blame the messenger that is “Unplugging.”

‘Unplugging’
Director: Debra Neil-Fisher
Stars: Eva Longoria, Matt Walsh, Keith David, Leah Thompson
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Rating: 1 out of 5

 

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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