Probing the sexual and professional misadventures of a struggling filmmaker after a breakup, the writer and director Adam Christian Clark (“Caroline and Jackie”) has cast himself in the lead of his unflinching semi-autobiographical “Newly Single.” Clark’s alter ego, Astor Williams Stevenson, comes across as a Todd Solondz character trapped in a Woody Allen film: Amid the familiar personality quirks, airy loft setting, glowing cinematography and orchestral score, the toxicity of Astor’s narcissism and frustration leaps out. He even flagellates himself with a paddle.
In one montage, Astor prowls the Los Angeles dating scene, attempting to break the ice with every woman at the bar by flashing a $50 bill. Curiously, it is set to a melancholy Ronald Stein tune from the 1960 film “The Threat,” as if to elicit sympathy for Astor’s obnoxiousness. Scenes in which he repeatedly harasses his ex Valerie (Molly C. Quinn) leave no doubt, however, that Astor is a tool. He appears agreeable only in meetings and conference calls pertaining to his film, even if his colleagues find one of his artistic choices exploitative.
Astor’s sister, Madeline (Anna Jacoby-Heron), has little screen time but imparts the film’s most resonant wisdom. One of Astor’s casual sex partners, Izzy (Jennifer Kim), a Korean American who dates white guys exclusively, emerges as the most complex and intriguing character even as her back story remains unexplored.
An examination of the unconscious racial bias embedded in Izzy and Astor’s interactions would have made for a more revelatory take on relationship dysfunctions. Still, Izzy’s despair and self-loathing force Astor to confront his own, redeeming an often insufferable protagonist and ultimately salvaging the film.