'Between Us' review: Julia Stiles and Taye Diggs bring story from stage to screen

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There are filmed adaptations of plays and plays that are, in essence, staged for the film camera. "Between Us," sadly, is closer to the latter.

Joe Hortua's four-handed melodrama about the arc of a relationship between two couples feels stagy, claustrophobic, despite filmmaker Dan Mirvish's efforts to "open the play up" with varied settings and outdoor footage. And it's performed theatrically, built to play to the back rows. 

Grace and Carlo ( Julia Stiles and Taye Diggs) are newlyweds, visiting the Midwestern home of their college buddies, Sharyl and Joel ( Melissa George and David Harbour). Whatever "seems like old times" nostalgia they might share is troubled by simmering resentments, jealousies and old grudges.

Carlo is a photographer, a struggling artist. Joel was also a photographer, but he sold-out (or turned practical) and now he and Melissa live in a McMansion. Where they aren't happy. Carlo and Grace try to endure, support.

But in the end, they wind up clinging to each other. 

The other couple's unsettling bickering is just getting started when we switch to another scene, a year later. We're privy to a second meeting, this time in Grace and Carlo's dingy, crowded New York apartment. Carlo is still struggling, social worker Grace is bitter. And who shows up but Joel and Sharyl.

"It's great to see you guys!"

"Is it? After last time?"

"Between Us" teases out what happened at that first reunion, testy banter and debate among the foursome, who split up into pairs and condemn each other in their best "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" impression.

Occasionally, we flash back to bar scenes, college years much earlier in the relationship, and to a wedding. 

"I'm not judging" means, yeah, he's judging. "You must be enjoying this" means no, no one is enjoying the direction the evening's taken.

There are surprise revelations and ugly memories, and the battle over the shifting class difference between these two couples plays out in an epic confrontation over a milkshake delivery tip.

This is a good cast, but it's all played at a rather shrill pitch that must work better on the stage. The intimacy of the screen makes it all uncomfortably in our face. And as movies often do, the play "Between Us" is deconstructed by the act of filming  -- showing its holes, its obvious devices and that most fatal flaw of all, characters we would run from if we encountered them at a dinner party.

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BETWEEN US
(Grade: C-minus)
Cast: Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George, David Harbour
Directed by Dan Mirvish, scripted by Dan Mirvish and  Joe Hortua, based on his play. A Montery Media release. 
Running time: 1:30
MPAA rating: unrated, with profanity, adult situations
Photo/Video credit: Bugeater Films