No less than Spider-Man 3, Oren Rudavsky’s The Treatment is an urban fairy tale. It’s an Upper West Side story, adapted from publishing powerhouse Daniel Menaker’s well-reviewed 1998 novel, first published in The New Yorker, in which a smart-mouthed if diffident hero (Chris Eigeman) wins a wise, beautiful princess (the versatile sometime X-Woman Famke Janssen) with a foundling child, no thanks to an irascible wizard—namely the hero’s shrink (Ian Holm, upgraded from hobbit).
“You make from the world a banal comedy in which you are the spectator,” Dr. Ernesto Morales dismissively tells Jake Singer in his distinctively Anglo-Argentine-Yiddish-phraseology. Given to outrageously graphic sexual metaphors, and suspiciously over-involved in the details of his patient’s love life, the ultra-Freudian analyst isn’t the movie’s only old-fashioned element; Janssen is a wondrously warm, totally unspoiled, fabulously wealthy widow magically named Allegra, and Jake is an idealistic, borderline-nerdy English teacher at a posh private high school, with mysteriously affordable rent.
Much like Rudavsky’s 1997 documentary A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, The Treatment —which won the “Made in New York” prize at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival—affectionately portrays the customs of a circumscribed community with its own particular laws and geography. Other than a trip to Connecticut to consult another crusty old doctor, Jake’s father (Harris Yulin), the action barely strays further than a few blocks from Central Park—where, in the opening scene, Jake meets his ex-girlfriend, getting the news of her engagement just in time for the first of many sessions on Morales’s procrustean couch. The tyrannical doctor is a richly comic character, his patient somewhat less so. Teaching European literature to snotty rich kids, Jake gets no respect, enduring their implicit comments on his own lowly state: “Why did Chekhov write about such total losers?”
Short, sweet, and hardly ever cloying, The Treatment is largely dependent for its success on the quality of its performances—most surprisingly, Eigeman’s. An axiom of Whit Stillman’s class-conscious indies, the actor has grown less smug and more sympathetic with age. The turning point, perhaps, was his appearance 10 years ago in Noah Baumbach’s Mr. Jealousy—another psychoanalytic comedy that, with its neurotic, underachieving protag (also a high school teacher), New York local color, and hilarious group-therapy sessions, could easily dose The Treatment with the anxiety of influence (or narcissism of small differences). Given its ongoing rumination on the nature of fatherhood, Rudavsky’s literate romance might equally well have been titled The Transference.
There’s a Philip K. Dick novel in which, ready for any emergency, the neurotic protagonist totes a portable mini-robot psychoanalyst in his briefcase. Dr. Morales has a similar, albeit negative, role here—popping out of Jake’s superego at strategic moments to undermine his confidence with questionable advice and unfair characterizations (referring to Allegra as a “dowager”). Menaker’s novel is a bit more paranoid; here, at least, the shrink does not turn out to be a closet anti-Semite. Indeed, John Zorn’s score gives the proceedings a gently philo-Semitic tinge—not inappropriate to its shtetl romance.
The plot developments have Jake and Allegra, whose young son is a student in Jake’s school, manipulating a wildly telegraphed and over-determined happy ending—albeit unconsciously. Rudavsky may be a long-term analysand, but for all his movie’s psychoanalytic underpinnings, it does pretend to be a bit unaware of the emotional wheeling and dealing of its narrative arc—the ubiquitous Dr. Morales notwithstanding. In ascribing character motives, the analyst comes close to being the movie’s narrator. As rude and unreliable as he is, The Treatment might have been far funnier if he were.