Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Spectacular Now (**)

Directed by James Ponsoldt


Before my screening for The Spectacular Now, one of the film's screenwriters, Michael H. Weber, gave a brief introduction in which he spoke of the film as something that he and his co-writer, Scott Neustadter, saw as a blatant reaction to what was happening with high school movies. They wanted to deviate away from the vampires and witches that have plagued the teenaged romances of today's cinemas. Weber and Neustadter also wrote (500) Days of Summer, one of the best romantic comedies in several decades, but where Summer made expert use of several visual gimmicks - and a star-turning performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt - The Spectacular Now tries to run almost exclusively on sincerity, a tried-and-true tale of the ne'er-do-well finding his way. Gone are the bells and whistles, and hello are the melodramatic soliloquies.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is eighteen, approaching the end of high school and is a full blown alcoholic. After a grave miscommunication, he is dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), and he fills that absence with harder partying and heavier drinking. Everybody knows Sutter and everyone loves him. He's charming, handsome in a boyish way, and seems to actually care about the people around him. For someone so popular, it's surprising that he's never mean or condescending. But for all the love pouring out, there isn't a whole lot coming in. Cassidy is gone, and their love appeared superficial anyway, considering how quickly she makes her move for the town's superstar athlete. Sutter's only solace seems to come from his flask, which never leaves his side. So far into drinking has Sutter fallen, that he even wakes up one morning without his car, strewn across a stranger's front lawn.

This particular lawn, though, belongs to Amy Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a fellow student at Sutter's high school. She recognizes him, but he doesn't even realize they go to school together. Sutter, ever the charmer, convinces her to let him help with her newspaper route - and help him find his car in the process - and then tells her that he'd like to have lunch with her. Sutter's friend, Ricky (Masam Holden), calls him out quickly: does Sutter really wanna be the guy who breaks Amy Finecky's heart? How interested can he possibly be in a girl who doesn't drink or dance and is good at math? But Amy is sweet, and awkward in that endearing teenage girl kind of way. And more than anything, she really likes him. For the first time, someone provides Sutter with the same amount of enthusiasm that he usually reserves for everyone else. She might even love him, but Sutter isn't sure if he's ready to accept what Amy is willing to offer.

Spectacular Now is at odds with itself most of the time. At once, it seems drawn toward the hard-boiled reality of 1970's cinema, while also trying to retain the sentimentality of the John Hughes movies of the 1980's. Either way, it doesn't really feel like a movie from today, which is fine enough if it didn't feel like it was trying so hard to be just that. Too often, scenes present the opportunity for tension only to squash it prematurely. Consider a scene early in the film, when Cassidy's new boyfriend, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) shows up at Sutter's job to confront him about what he still may or may not be doing with Cassidy. Before anyone even raises their dukes, the confrontation is diffused as Sutter drowns Marcus in compliments, making you wonder what the scene was even trying to accomplish to begin with. Later in the film there is a more serious occurrence - so serious that it should bring on a reckoning of Sutter's character. But that too is bypassed too easily, and its hard to not to get frustrated by how many people bend over backwards for Sutter.

But Teller and Woodley have terrific chemistry. The film continues a depressingly lazy trend of taking a beautiful girl - Woodley - and putting her in frumpy jeans so that we can believe she's not beautiful. It's a credit to Woodley that this never becomes too apparent. The screenplay betrays the character of Amy Finecky in several ways I feel, especially by the end, but Woodley is so terrific here - a mixed bag of bubbly giggles and insecurity. Her sweetness is radiant, but not overwhelming. If you love her character at all, you probably won't care for the ending. Teller is just as good, and the screenplay gives him a whole lot more to work with. Some people are jerks because they're bad people, while others are just so nice that they can't help but say no until the worst possible moment. Sutter is the latter, and Teller does a great job of showing the dough-eyed naivete behind the cool demeanor.

I found Sutter's character to be a lot sadder than this movie suggests. Alcoholism is nothing to shrug your shoulders at and Sutter suffers it at eighteen. This movie needed to decide whether or not it wanted to be about Sutter's alcoholism or if it wanted to be about Sutter and Amy. Instead it's only half about both and I don't think it dedicates the proper attention to either half. But Teller and Woodley are two of the best young actors we have and their both really committed here. Teller has been charming in films for years, but this is the first time he's really been given the responsibility of a lead role. There's a sort of Gordon-Levittish appeal with his uncommon good looks and surprising tact with comedy. Woodley very nearly snagged an Oscar nomination in The Descendants two years ago, where she played a straying teenaged girl sexed up to the point of discomfort. Amy Finecky is not even on the same planet as her character in The Descendants. I'd look forward to seeing Teller and Woodley play characters from several other planets, but hopefully those planets have better screenplays.

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