REVIEW: Mira Sorvino Shines as a Sparkling Hot Mess in Union Square

Movieline Score: 7

At first glance, Mira Sorvino’s character in Union Square, a claustrophobic but well-acted sibling chamber piece, bears a striking resemblance to Linda Ash, the tacky hooker with the heart of gold from Mighty Aphrodite. The latter role won Sorvino an Oscar in 1996, and though she has worked steadily since that time the actress has suffered from that vague but chronic condition of feeling under-seen. With its small cast and focus on performance, Union Square promises to be a welcome showcase for Sorvino, and the early rhymes with Miss Linda are intriguingly open-ended.

Lucy (Sorvino) is a character, all right. After the opening 10 minutes, in which we watch the Bronx-dwelling, stack-heeled, short-skirted, generally disheveled blonde arrive in Union Square, fine-tune a text message, take a spin around Filene’s Basement, then have a colossal meltdown when the object of her visit – a shadowy lover – refuses to see her or take her next dozen calls, the idea of spending an entire movie with Lucy fills one with dread. If you saw her smeared face coming on the subway, you’d switch cars.

Director Nancy Savoca (who co-wrote the script with Mary Tobler) leans heavily on Lucy’s repellent qualities right up front. She’s unstable, unseemly, un-self-aware, a guileless garbage-mouth; at the same time, she's streetwise and an exposed nerve out in the world. As a fallback Lucy shows up at the door of an estranged friend who we soon learn is her sister. Jenny (Tammy Blanchard) is Lucy’s direct inverse: She runs a holistic product business with her fiancé Andy (Christopher Backus), and her sleek Manhattan apartment has pointed ground rules: No noise, no shoes, no dogs, and no smoking. No sooner is she introduced to share our Lucy-generated dismay than Jenny starts to seem like a piece of work herself.

Savoca spends too much time inviting us to gawp at Lucy’s hot messiness, and the contrast between them is neat and condescending. Jenny and Andy (who looks, as Lucy observes, just like Superman) live meticulously, down to the ginseng and the running log, and Lucy’s arrival seems to paralyze her sister. They have passed three years without contact, and no trace of the Bronx can be detected in Jenny’s voice or bearing. This, it is later revealed, is quite deliberate. As far as the blithely incurious Andy is concerned, Jenny is a sweet girl from Maine with no family to speak of. Thus a dilemma is set up, and through its resolution we hope Lucy and Jenny will emerge as something more than counterpoint caricatures of hysteria and Stepford catatonia.

Which is not to say the actresses aren’t involving: Sorvino in particular develops a depth and pathos to shore up her city-girl charisma. Lucy decides to protect her sister’s secret, for as long as it lasts, and keeps several of her own close at hand. One involves their wayward mother (played, in a brief vignette, by Patti Lupone), and once it is divulged Lucy and Jenny begin to emerge as human beings with a history.

The script can’t bring their relationship into a more complex, convincing relief, but Union Square comes closer to that than you would first imagine. Its best moments find Sorvino and Blanchard out of the apartment, where the direction and the writing feel more stagebound. Wending through the Union Square market, losing each other in a light-pulsing nightclub, and falling apart at the pier, they feel most like what they are: Bewildered sisters living in two kinds of reaction to their roots.

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