Phyllis and Harold Kleine were married 59 years. For nearly six decades, Harold believed his marriage was the best thing that ever happened to him. Unbeknownst to him, his wife believed the exact opposite. Chronicled through old home videos and interviews complied by their daughter, filmmaker Cindy Kleine, Phyllis and Harold is a train wreck of a film about a train wreck of a marriage.
The film begins quaintly enough with footage that makes you feel as if you are watching old home videos of your own parents or grandparents. But then after about 15 minutes of seemingly the same video, you realize these aren’t your family members and you could really care less about their old photos and home movies.
As the film progresses, you finally delve into what appears to be the plot of the film. Harold marries Phyllis for love. Phyllis marries Harold because “it was time” to get out of her parents’ house. In one-on-one interviews conducted later in her life, she describes her marriage as a game of musical chairs with Harold being the chair she landed in when the music stopped.
Because Phyllis viewed her marriage as a game of chance, she felt justified in her decision to begin an affair within her first year of marriage. The man she chose was her boss, a married man eight years her senior. He eventually left his wife and terminally ill son, but Phyllis ended their affair.
The affair was kept secret until the younger Kleine, the director, writer and producer of the film, had her first love at age 18. Phyllis took this inopportune, premature time to tell her daughters, including Cindy’s sister Ricky, about her liaison.
The daughters were furious with their mother — not because she was unfaithful to their father, not because her boss was married, and not because she was still thinking about her ex-lover. They were furious because she didn’t continue the affair.
The daughters then team up to reunite the adulterous couple. They track down her former boss, they buy their mother a post office box so the two can correspond and then feed their father elaborate excuses as to their mother’s whereabouts. They also do something of utmost incomprehensibility — they let their mother and her lover use their apartments as honeymoon suites.
A few times, Ricky told Harold she and Phyllis were going to a press conference out of town. Instead, Phyllis would fly across the country to visit her lover and Ricky would lock herself in her apartment, unable to leave or answer her phone for an entire weekend. These are the lengths they endured to facilitate their mother’s affair.
“The enemy: My father. The weapon: Secrets,” Cindy said.
The sisters went through a lot to make sure their mother could have sex with another man. The film, therefore, is intended to be sympathetic to Phyllis’ case. The director wants the audience to feel that she and her sister were doing the right thing and, somehow, Harold is to blame.
Harold — the man who describes his wife as a “terrific woman” and says he was lucky to be married to Phyllis; the man who was “absolutely, always” sure he married the right person — this is the man the film attempts to blame.
The sisters complained how difficult it was to sneak their mother out of the house because Harold paid all the bills and would ask about calls, mail or missing sums. In this way, the film attempts to frame Harold as overbearing, constricting and tyrannical. Overbearing for questioning excessive withdrawals from their joint bank account? Constricting for questioning multiple calls from across the country? Tyrannical for questioning mail addressed to his wife from an unknown male? If I was Harold, I might be suspicious my wife was cheating on me.
Oddly, not once was the word “divorce” used in the film. Apparently, it was much easier to have an affair and make a film about it. Fortunately, for the filmmaker, her father died sooner than expected — he choked on a pork chop Phyllis cooked for him.
Apart from the disgusting content of the film, the formal elements were just as horrendous. There are lengthy asides that do nothing to further the story. For instance, an entire segment on the Kliene family’s nanny unfortunately frames the poor woman in such a way that furthers the stereotype of the African-American maid.
Even worse than this insensitive portion is the multitude of incoherent animation abstractions. Random cutouts from old photographs are set against new backgrounds and scenes that were not captured are drawn in haphazard cartoons that are as odd as they are unnecessary.
For example, the director describes how she was in the bathtub when she learned of her father’s sudden death. To illustrate this, she felt it necessary to insert an animation of painted toenails in a bubble bath. The toes sank into the bubbles when she heard the news. This tasteless interpretation epitomizes the lack of tact and respect present throughout the film.
The distracting formal elements and disturbing content ultimately combine to create the worst film you’ll never see. Hopefully, the director is proud of herself for her manipulation of her parent’s lives in hopes of furthering her filmmaking career. At least the film-watching public can rest easy that Cindy Kleine only has one set of parents to defame and make terrible films about.