Writer/director/star Gianni Di Gregorio's The Salt of Life constitutes the follow-up to his 2008 audience favorite Mid-August Lunch, and on the surface level, this outing has a good deal in common with its predecessor. As in the prior film, Di Gregorio plays Gianni, a well-meaning, middle-aged Italian man, overwrought and befuddled by the endless number of complicated women who parade in and out of his life. But whereas the previous movie focused on Gianni's frustration with a bunch of garrulous octogenarian ladies, this time around we see him teetering on the edge of a potential midlife crisis and beset by the temptation to cheat on his wife. He meets an endless series of comely yet eccentric young females as possible options for an affair. And just in case we're feeling nostalgic for more of the same elderly characters who turned up in Lunch, we get a subplot that could have easily been excised from that picture, in which Gianni grows exasperated with his spacey 96-year-old mother. She spends ludicrous amounts of money on everything she can get her hands on, leaving her poor son faced with impending destitution.
Unfortunately, this excursion is far less satisfying than Di Gregorio's prior outing. When Mid-August Lunch reached American shores, it struck one as a breath of fresh air -- light, low-key, and whimsical in an endearing way, with little flyspecks of humor tied to the behavior of the elderly women and Gianni's slow burn. It was also narratively concise; as the screenwriter, Di Gregorio set up the material as carefully as the gears in a clock to deliver laugh-bearing revelations on perfect cue. Real life never once impeded, but that seemed fine. Here, the narrative is looser and more open, with an episodic quality that actually recalls Bent Hamer's O' Horten. That may sound delightful, but Di Gregorio doesn't fare as well as Hamer in this mode. For the first 25 minutes or so, the picture seems on the verge of treading down the well-worn path of 10 or The Seven Year Itch. It mercifully avoids those clichés, but in their place we get something vague and nebulous. Di Gregorio seems to be riffing on the idea of middle age as an unsteady balance -- with his character perched between exaggerated perceptions of himself as a young man and a deprecating sense of himself as an old geezer. Consequently, the humorous and bittersweet elements emerge from situations that seem set up to defy the character's delusions. We get, for example, a sequence in which Gianni attempts a clumsy seduction of his mother's sexy nursemaid -- only to hear her say that he reminds her of her grandfather. And there's another episode in which Gianni primps and decks himself out for an afternoon alone with a voluptuous chanteuse, but gets saddled instead with her wizened, elderly mother, who clearly has a mad crush on him. And at the other end of the spectrum, there's an ongoing storyline involving a sexy young neighbor of Gianni's who practically throws herself into his arms in a half-dressed state, but never seems to draw the level of amorous attention from him that she obviously seeks, likely because he never considers himself a realistic recipient for her advances.
In other words, this is a character who never sees himself with anything close to accuracy, struggling to get a grip on what is viable at his age and what isn't. And while that idea may be a valuable device to bring individual sequences and gags home, it isn't nearly enough to sustain the whole film, probably because Gianni never really evolves; he stays trapped in this same precarious state in which he began. In fact, the picture even lacks a resolution -- its final sequence seems more of an escape into Gianni's frivolous romantic fantasies than an actual look at how the character's life would progress from everything that has come before. The movie is certainly well-shot and acted, and has its share of scattered laughs, but the sad fact is that nearly all of them emerge from the subplot involving the batty old mother. As a result, Di Gregorio seems to be treading water and trying like mad to re-create the success of Mid-August Lunch. If these two films are any indication, he's in danger of turning into a one-trick pony.