By Don Simpson | April 25, 2011
Director: Josh Stolberg
Writer: Josh Stolberg
Starring: David Arquette, Connie Britton, Jennifer Finnigan, Sarah Hyland, Jennifer Jostyn, Jason Mantzoukas, Matt Prokop, Jonathan Silverman, Alan Tudyk
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance.” Aristotle once said that and now Paul (David Arquette), an elementary school teacher, recites Aristotle’s philosophy on art to his young class; but we sense that Paul is also providing the audience with writer-director Josh Stolberg’s (Kids in America) cinematic philosophy as well. Conception is not about what we see on the outside, it is what is going on the inside of the characters (figuratively and literally). We might understand that later — but, like Paul’s class, the time has not come for us to be able to comprehend such things. Paul’s class is so perplexed by the Aristotle quote, that it somehow incites in them the desire to inquire about another confounding topic: where babies come from. Yes, teacher, inquiring young minds want to know. “Is a stork another name for vagina?” Oh, kids, they sure do say the darndest things! This obviously is not a topic to discuss with such young children (when is that damn class bell ever going to ring?); but, like Salt-n-Pepa, Stolberg does want to talk about sex (and, yes, the titular conception) with the adults in the audience.
As Essex Green sings during the opening credits, it really is a “Fabulous Day” in Hollywood. Nine couples — all in different stages of their romantic relationships — are about to… Oh, snap! That might be giving away too much information. Nonetheless, these nine couples share one commonality — the spoiler that I will not reveal; there is no intertwining and intermingling, other than the editing that splices everyone’s lives together on screen.
There is a teenage couple — Tracey (Sarah Hyland) and J.T. (Matt Prokop) — who are contending with the fear, anxiety and anticipation of losing their virginity to each other. But first, J.T. must convert to vegetarianism because Tracey will only have sex with J.T. if he gives up meat. (J.T.: “What do you want from me? It’s meat. It’s a food group.” Tracey: “No, its not. Protein is a food group. Meat is murder!” Can I get an amen?)
Laurie (Jennifer Finnigan) and Brad (Jonathan Silverman) are a long-married couple. Sex has become a chore for them and it is quickly slipping down their priorities list — finishing a chapter of a book is definitely more important and masturbation is considered (by Brad, at least) to be quicker, cleaner and easier — and the communication between them is breaking down. First and foremost, they have lost the ability to communicate with each other whenever one of them actually does want to have sex. (“Do you want to do it?” “Do you want to fuck?”)
Gloria (Connie Britton) and Brian’s (Jason Mantzoukas) relationship seems to have become increasingly clinical; partly because Gloria is a nurse, but mostly because they are undergoing fertility treatments. As Brian reluctantly injects Gloria with hormones in her ass, he asks, “Can you be nice to me?” Gloria’s retort to that is, “I have got a needle in my ass right now!” Brian must make the transition from boxers to briefs (his “hot balls aren’t good for making babies”) and their sexual encounters are formulaic and scheduled (Gloria: “Take your clothes off, you are fucking me right now!” Brian: “All this sexy schedule talk has gotten me rock hard, let’s do this.”)
Gwen (Jennifer Jostyn) and Mark (Alan Tudyk) had their first baby six weeks ago and their post-baby relationship has become crippled by sleep-deprivation among other things. Feeling as though enough time has passed since the birth of their child, Mark wants to have sex with Gwen; but the postpartum changes to Gwen’s body and mind have left her no longer feeling attractive or sexy. Nearly everything Mark does or says is interpreted by Gwen as a ploy to have sex, so nearly everything Mark does or says drives Gwen farther and farther away.
Conception focuses less on developing the remaining five couples: the blind daters, Joel (Steve Howey) and Bree (Leila Charles Leigh); the fiery romantics, Tommy (Tim Griffin) and Gina (America Olivo); the couple on the verge of breaking up, Eric (Aaron Ashmore) and Carla (Leah Pipes); the lesbian couple planning for artificial insemination, Nikki (Moon Bloodgood) and Tay (Pamela Adlon); and the divorcée cougar with her young boyfriend, Tiffany (Julie Bowen) and Will (Gregory Smith). The presumably simultaneous narratives transition quite fluidly (and voyeuristically) between the personal lives and conversations of all nine couples; Stolberg occasionally utilizes split screens to ease in and out of some of the cuts. (My favorite use of the split screen visualization occurs when Stolberg allows Laurie and Brad to share the screen with Gloria and Brian– albeit in their respective bedrooms. I only wish that Stolberg would have utilized this technique to such powerful effect more often.)
Stolberg’s dialogue is near-perfect in its natural representation of realistic conversations (except for Nikki and Tay, whose lines seem all too purposeful) and he shows a keen ear for the inner workings of the most private moments of each couple’s relationship, all the while integrating a healthy dose of humor into the seriousness. Unfortunately, Stolberg bites off more characters than he can chew. (Very few directors can effectively juggle 18 primary characters’ lives in less than two hours.) I suspect that Stolberg saw the need to juxtapose so many couples in one film in order to showcase a wide variety of possibilities of love; yet I also suspect that some of this film’s audience will leave Conception asking why certain relationship types (or hot-button topics such as abortion) were left out — in other words, it is a lose-lose situation for Stolberg no matter how many scenarios he integrates into the narrative. As I see it, four or five couples would have been sufficient enough for Stolberg to convey his message; and that also would have allowed the audience ample time to connect with all of the selected couples.