In theory, it's romantic to watch young couples struggling. We're used to seeing 'em in movies from the '30s, '40s and onward: He makes only enough money to put beans, not steak, on the table. She stretches the meager dollars he brings home by whipping up cheerful curtains patched together from fabric scraps. They may be poor, but they have love on their side, and if they work together, a comfortable and happy life — including the babies that will eventually come — will be theirs.
With her debut film, The Brass Teapot, Ramaa Mosley riffs on that comforting convention, but she puts a dark Great Recession-era spin on it, too. Michael Angarano and Juno Temple star as John and Alice, a pair of impossibly young small-town newlyweds who, as the movie opens, are as deeply in love as any freshly minted couple ought to be.
When the morning alarm goes off, the two linger in bed to the point where John has to rush off — by bicycle — to his low-paying, soul-killing telemarketing job. Alice, meanwhile, slips into some half-sexy, half-professional interview clothes — the outfit appears to be culled from whatever she's got in the closet — and sets out to find a job. She needs to pay off the thousands of dollars of debt she's racked up getting an art-history degree, a "Good luck with that!" enterprise if ever there was one.
Even when John suddenly loses his job, the two don't really fight. But they do need to find a way to hold their lives together financially. Serendipitously, and in an encounter loaded with portent, Alice comes across a teapot adorned with mysterious symbols. Not long after, she learns that it chugs out money every time someone nearby feels pain.
John and Alice start out hurting themselves just a little bit, then a lot, for profit if not for fun. Then they move on to hurting each other. And by that time, it's clear where this well-intentioned but awkward little dark comedy is headed. The Brass Teapot, based on a short story by Tim Macy (who also wrote the script), mines the same vein as W.W. Jacobs' short story "The Monkey's Paw," a staple of junior high English classes (at least in the 1970s) whose be-careful-what-you-wish-for tenor sent shivers down the spines of many an impressionable seventh-grader.
But although Mosley tries to leaven the story's heavy-handed moralism with wry humor, the picture is neither as buoyant nor as sinister as it needs to be. In the beginning, Alice and John's pratfalls are played for laughs: He comes home one day to find her forehead bleeding from a possibly accidental, possibly self-inflicted wound, even as she's crouching jubilantly over a pile of money freshly minted from her strange little pot.
Temple is an appealing young actress whose gifts haven't yet been adequately tapped; she has a saucy, devilish way about her, as if she knows she could get a guy to do anything in the world for her just by turning on a fake pout.
And in the movie's first third or so, the actress's instincts serve her well: Her zonked-out glee is demonic and funny. But she can't carry the movie into the funny-bleak corners where it needs to go. Her petulance, feeding off Alice's unhealthy devotion to the teapot, too quickly becomes an annoying affectation.
Angarano, as the stable, affectionate husband who distrusts the teapot's powers from the start, is easier to take — he shrugs through the movie without trying too hard, cruising along on his Neumanesque "What, me worry?" demeanor.
But The Brass Teapot too often devolves into stale slapstick, as when a pair of comically aggressive young Hasidic Jews appear at John and Alice's door to seize the evil little pot, which they believe is rightfully theirs. (A minor character in the picture gets the funniest line when she sees them and cries out, "Oh my God! Wizards!") And the nutty-winsome young actress Alia Shawkat, of Arrested Development, is wasted in a tiny third-banana role.
The Brass Teapot is most effective, and most affecting, at the very beginning, when we're just getting to know these two crazy young kids, so desperately in love. Their life together is hard, but the strain doesn't yet show on their expectant young faces.
Entwined in each other's arms, they have that elusive something that most people on the planet long for. They're a picture of everything money can't buy — and even though The Brass Teapot goes dutifully through its inevitable paces, it can never recover from the wistfulness of that image.