When the romantic leads of the comedy The Treatment introduce themselves, they do more than initiate an unlikely affair; the characters played by Chris Eigeman and Famke Janssen evoke the memories of two other movies.
As Jake Singer, Eigeman shares the last name of Alvy Singer, Woody Allen's thinly disguised alter ego in 1975's Annie Hall, one of Allen's funniest and most insightful love stories. Janssen's Allegra Marshall, meanwhile, has the uncommon first name of the lovelorn female protagonist of Maria Maggenti's Puccini for Beginners, one of the most recent and least memorable would-be Woody indie films.
It's like a crossroads moment. Will The Treatment's portrait of neurotic New Yorkers live up to the standards of Annie Hall or just offer another pale imitation, like that other film that's already fading from memory? Filmmaker Oren Rudavsky – who previously has made such documentaries as Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust – brings a light and sincere touch to the material. He's also well-served by Eigeman and Janssen, but a couple of missteps consign The Treatment to the ranks of the Woody wannabes, even though it deserves attention.
The heart of The Treatment's troubles is its considerable devotion of thought and talent to a plot point that's a complete nonstarter. Trying to allay his countless anxieties, Jake attends therapy sessions with Dr. Ernesto Morales (Ian Holm), the self-described "last of the great Freudians." Dr. Morales' challenging voice begins to provoke Jake in private places such as the car or the bathroom, making the audience wonder if he even exists. Holm convincingly plays Morales as an imperious, tough-love intellectual (although his accent sounds more Teutonic than Argentinian). Morales provides a bullying caricature of a shrink, prone to sarcastic remarks such as, "Thank you for this blood in the groin," when he gets a rise out of Jake.
But the whole concept seems to belong in another era, and seems especially antiquated here. Gags such as having a shrink appear and badger a patient during sex probably wouldn't be funny even when Freudian therapy was trendy.
The rest of The Treatment approaches seemingly familiar material with a sense of genuine curiosity. Jake teaches English at a private boys' school, where Allegra, a board member, has enrolled her young son. When Jake discovers that Allegra's a recent widow, they gradually begin a romance despite Jake's self-esteem issues. Moments such as an impromptu pick-up basketball game with strangers capture the sense of joy and renewal of falling in love better than the usual rom-com montage. Even when a mistaken-identity complication arises, Rudavsky plays it more for the deeper emotional stakes than the short-term comedy shtick.
Some of The Treatment's most intriguing ideas turn out to be the least developed. On basketball courts and at fundraising dinners, Jake becomes a more outspoken advocate for his students, including a talented African-American with a discipline problem. For a while, The Treatment's views on race and education suggest it might unfold like a prep-school version of Half Nelson (the two films share the same cinematographer, Andrij Parekh), with psychoanalysis and not crack cocaine as the teacher's crutch. Instead, the focus shifts to father figures when Jake's father (Harris Yulin) has a medical crisis.
Eigeman unifies the film's diverse threads and changes in tone. He's probably best-known as the clean-cut but nasty embodiment of American entitlement in Whit Stillman films such as Metropolitan and Barcelona. (He's frequently played jerky roles in subsequent work, revealing the truth in a remark once made by Bradley Whitford: As a white male with a receding hairline, he expected to play yuppie-scum characters forever until he was cast in "The West Wing.")
Eigeman's face and acting style have softened a bit but still have a solidity and a warmth you seldom find in self-deprecating, hyperverbal roles such as this one. Wisecracks drive many urban romantic comedies, but Eigeman consistently delivers his lines like casual everyday speech, not self-conscious dialogue. When he's casually stalking an ex-girlfriend in an early scene, he conveys too much guilt to be threatening.
As Janssen's gotten a little older, she's getting some of the regal posture of Angelica Huston, and she gives Allegra a wounded, shy quality that nicely matches Jake's tentative nature. In The Treatment, the two give what will probably be some of the most underappreciated performances of the year. Ironically, the film's doctor is the worst thing about what ails it.