“Jake Squared,” in theaters across the country now, is a profoundly insecure film. Its self-effacing protagonist regularly addresses the audience. It pauses about fifteen minutes in to recap it's laughably convoluted plot and it repeatedly tries to beat the viewer to the rhetorical punch by auto-critiquing its self-indulgence. Every few minutes a new epigraph from Homer, Judith Wax or Federico Fellini pops up to make sure everyone understands the meaning behind every scene. While there are a few clever bits of direction and a strong performance from star Elias Koteas in the film, its aggressive solipsism makes it a chore to sit through.
The film follows Jake Klein (Koteas), a 50-year-old film director who tries to combat his feelings of middle-aged ennui by making an autobiographical film with his friends, family and spurred lovers filling out the supporting cast. Things take a strange turn as Jake at age 40, 30 and 17 arrive at the shoot and cause him to question every major life decision he’s ever made. Jake’s grows more anxious as deceased relatives and old girlfriends also start visiting. Thankfully, writer/director/real life Jake Klein Howard Goldberg possessed enough restraint to occasionally pull back from the onanism long enough to make the film bearable.
An actor hired to be Jake’s proxy for the film (“Under the Dome’s” Mike Vogel playing a character called “Mike Vogel”) hooks up with Jake’s long-distance girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Teenage Jake (Kevin Railsback) gets a chance to talk to his high school sweetheart (Jane Seymour) 40 years after their relationship ended. 50-year-old Jake learns from his 40 something mother that his parents’ perfect marriage wasn’t. Jake and his friend Beth (Virginia Madsen) take a walk along an LA hillside while Jake directs a scene where Vogel-as-Jake and an actress playing Beth walk along an LA hillside. These brief diversions from Jake’s exhausting self-interrogation are some of the best sequences of the film, largely because they are some of the film’s few scenes where Goldberg isn’t trying to show off how clever he is.
If “Jake Squared” maintained that self-possession for more than a few minutes at a time, it might’ve really been something. Elias Koteas does some of the strongest work of his career as the many versions of Jake Klein. Though the visual signifiers differentiating the Jakes amounts to little more than different hats, Koteas makes each version distinct; Jack at 30 is bumbling and insecure, Jake at 40 is more laid back, but full of post-divorce bitterness and Jake at 50 is finally comfortable in his own skin, but is haunted by the idea that his neuroses cost him his only shot at happiness. Had Goldberg cast a lesser actor, the film would be insufferable. Koteas makes Jake’s, and by extension, the film’s insecurity and neediness visceral and affecting.
The film’s ambiguous, unsentimental ending almost makes everything that went before worthwhile. As it winds down, it seems like “Jake Squared” will end with Jake learning a pat lesson about self-acceptance, but then a final Jake alternate appears and call out the hollowness of the protagonist’s epiphany. For a fleeting moment, the film sets aside the self-deprecating humor and the epigraphs and offers a withering, honest assessment of its central character. The scene doesn’t excuse the navel gazing of the preceding hour and half, but it does prove that Howard Goldberg has something of value to say as an artist. Hopefully his next directorial effort will see him eschew the solipsism for something significantly less hermetic.