We’re still in the early stages of “Guest Artist” when it becomes evident this train is never leaving the station — or should I say the main characters are never going to leave the actual train station where the movie is set.
At the outset of “Guest Artist,” which is written by and stars Jeff Daniels and is directed by Timothy Busfield, we’re told the story “is based on an incident which became a play which became this film,” and in fact it was originally staged at Daniels’ Purple Rose Theater Company in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan. While the movie includes a couple of scenes that take place outside the confines of the aforementioned train station in small-town Michigan, for the most part this comes across as a filmed version of a stage play that probably worked a lot better in its original form than it does here. The performances and the production design are first-rate, but even at 74 minutes, “Guest Artist” is an overly talky, at times outdated and cliché-riddled two-hander that wears out its welcome by the halfway mark.
In the opening and by far most cinematic scene in the film, we’re in Manhattan’s theater district at the height of the holiday season, with Daniels’ once-celebrated playwright Joseph Harris crawling inside of a bottle and looking like he’s one step away from being homeless when his cynical, world-weary agent (soap opera veteran Erika Slezak in a great cameo) says she somehow managed to find him a paying job, as a theater company in Michigan has signed on to premiere his latest work.
That’s it. That’s the gig. Either take it and get your sorry self to Michigan or find another agent.
Joseph is deathly afraid of flying, so he takes the train and is thoroughly soused by the time he stumbles into the station and passes out while waiting for his ride to show up. Enter local aspiring playwright and unabashed Joseph Harris fan Kenneth Waters (Thomas Macias), who works at the theater company and has been assigned to be Joseph’s driver/assistant, and whose enthusiasm about meeting his idol isn’t dampened a bit when Joseph greets him by yelling at him for being late and saying of the town, “This feels like one of those places you go to only if you have to, does it feel that way to you?”
“I’m from here,” says Kenneth.
“Escape,” retorts Joseph.
Daniel’s screenplay contains a number of clever little exchanges like that — but it’s also filled with overwrought monologues about how “an artist should never apologize” for anything, and today’s iPhone-obsessed generation doesn’t have the attention span to appreciate the theater, and boy was Eugene O’Neill lucky to have been a writer a century ago. The conceit keeping the setting at the train station is Joseph refusing to get in Kenneth’s car to be driven to his hotel (and to rehearsals at the playhouse the next day) and insisting on returning to New York City — but there’s the matter of a lack of funds, not to mention the next train isn’t due for quite a while, so we’re all stuck here.
The earnest Kenneth keeps quoting verbatim from Joseph’s work, even citing specific dates of op-ed pieces and interviews. Director Busfield and his production team do an admirable job of moving the camera about the train station (and occasionally outside), but it’s not enough to overcome the static nature of the story, as Joseph becomes ever more verbose and tiresome, and Kenneth’s wide-eyed fanboy act wears thin, and the train station not only confines the drama but comes close to flat-out stopping it in its tracks.