“The first thing is that the audience appear to be confronted by their own reflection in a huge mirror. Impossible.” So begins Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound as well as Annie Baker’s new play The Flick, which is set in a dilapidated movie theater for which the play is named, one of the eight in Worcester County, MA that still uses a 35mm projector. In the style of indie movies from the early ‘nineties—Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction—The Flick follows three of the theater’s employees while they work, bullshit, and bond.
Sam (the expert Matthew Maher) is thirty-five, still living with his parents, and spends his days and nights pining after projectionist Rose (Louisa Krause), the kind of frumpy, quirky girl who would inspire crushes from lonely male co-workers. Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), a clinically depressed film snob, joins The Flick out of elitist loyalty to celluloid in an age of digital monopoly. While sweeping up popcorn, tossing out sneaked-in bags of Sun Chips, and wiping down sticky floors, Sam, Rose, and Avery form a kind of dysfunctional family. There is something confessional about empty movie theaters—staring ahead at an empty screen, these three are able to talk more openly than they would if they had to face each other.
In its first, extended act, The Flick has the casual, incidental tone of Linklater’s best work. Avery insists that no great American movie has been made in the past ten years, and when Sam suggests Avatar, the bespectacled nerd replies, “I don’t think it’s possible for me to engage in a rational debate with you about it. It’s like if I said: I love killing babies. Let me try to convince you why killing babies is fun and you should enjoy killing babies.” Later, Avery recounts a funny and beautiful dream he has in which people are granted entry into heaven if they have truly loved a single movie; despite devouring the entire Criterion Collection and studiously working his way through Truffaut’s filmography, Avery is only let through the Pearly Gates when he realizes that Honeymoon in Vegas (a “like really, really bad movie” starring Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker) was the one movie he truly loved. “And at first I’m like: what? My entire life can be represented by Honeymoon in Vegas? But then I’m like, wait, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to heaven. I must have done something right in my life because I’m going to heaven.”
But after a nearly two-hour first act, The Flick runs out of steam. Almost nothing that happens after intermission is truly necessary. In a recent New Yorker profile, Nathan Heller writes that Ms. Baker “explore[s] what’s left unsaid along the edges of conversation,” and yet in The Flick everything that was implicit eventually becomes explicit; everything is said—Sam confesses his love, Rose accuses him of idealizing her, and Avery sees his friendship with the two challenged. With some trimming, The Flick could be a fine play. As it is—with a runtime thirty minutes longer than Avatar—it ends up feeling like a Kevin Smith movie without an editor.