Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lush Life: THE SPECTACULAR NOW


The Spectacular Now is filled with fine performances that make big impacts. It’s not just the leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as two teens in love or something close to it, who generate an emotional interest. I found even greater emotion in the faces of the character actors playing the adults around them. As a small business owner with fatherly feelings towards his teenage employee, Bob Odenkirk has only a scene or two, but generates an amazingly resonant and memorable presence. Similarly, when Kyle Chandler shows up late in the picture as a deadbeat dad, the sense of strained affection and inescapable personal failings is palpable. There’s a seriousness to the brief scenes with these men that extend to the film’s approach to capturing performances.

Director James Ponsoldt shoots the film with a sense of specificity and atmospherics, using a widescreen frame to grab intimate close-ups and spacious two-shots that register small shifts of emotions across a vast stretch of screen space. When the high school seniors played by Teller and Woodley go on their first date – he, an overconfident life-of-the-party guy; she, an introverted bookish type – the impression of the emotional terrain is vivid and subtly expressed. There are shifting feelings, of testing out the other, of hesitantly pressing forward and retreating, unable to reveal too much without feeling self-conscious about it, but plunging forward anyway. It’s all too real.

And yet, no matter how finely acted and well-crafted a film it is, Spectacular Now is ultimately nothing more than a dreary addiction drama embellished with uncommonly truthful performances, but ending up in the same place, walking over the same well-trod after-school-special plot beats we’ve seen before. Teller’s seemingly carefree kid is a not-so-secret alcoholic, wielding his spiked SuperGulp as a perpetual source of his next sip. Particular attention is paid to the way he’ll grab a red Solo cup at a kegger, pushes beers on his girlfriend, and traces his way back through the mixed signals from his most recent ex (Brie Larson) who is more simpatico with his drinking habits. His romantic prom-night gift to Woodley is an engraved flask. How sweet. It’s like Flight without the sensational plane crash sequence. Instead, we’re watching a slow-motion crash, as a promising young guy can’t even see his promise.

The opening scene shows us a blank page of a college application essay. The hackneyed opening narration promises to fill us in on what he writes, but he quickly discards the endeavor in favor of partying. The frustration of watching this character is as raw as it is affected. Ponsoldt’s been here before, in his previous (and better) film Smashed, the story of an elementary school teacher trying to hide the dangerous drunken lifestyle of her off hours. There as here it’s all too easy for a film to grow repetitive as it glumly traces a character’s long, painful downward spiral. Smashed had a sense of focus that helped keep it on track. It also had a fantastic lead performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who also turns up in Spectacular Now as yet another of its few-scene wonders, playing Teller’s sober older sister. This film keeps alcoholism an ominous subplot, with romance foremost on its mind for a while. That the boy and girl Meet Cute when he wakes up hungover with no idea as to his location is certainly an unpromising start and a key to the film’s real concerns.

Like a Cameron Crowe movie without the killer soundtrack or a John Hughes movie without the cheerfully archetypical yet somehow convincing teenagers, Spectacular Now wears its heart on its sleeve. Unlike those directors’ films, it’s only so convincing, without ever quite finding its own approach. The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who brought a clever (some might say too clever, but I digress) approach to young love with (500) Days of Summer, here adapt a novel by Tim Tharp, finding ways to tone down the emotion of love without misplacing heart. It’s certainly an earnest film, shaggy and spirited in a low-key, hangout kind of way. That the film flirts with dullness, occasionally growing drab and slow, is its price to pay. Some of the best scenes are the ones that simply unspool, painfully mundane dialogue exchanged between a boy and a girl eager to impress the other and quickly finding a comfort that allows their energy levels to merge.

They push each other in ways both good and bad. That all feels true. For some time the film gives equal weight to their plights, their single mothers (his Jennifer Jason Leigh, hers Whitney Goin), their dreams, ambitions, and attraction to one another. The interior lives of both boy and girl are balanced nicely. But because he’s the alcoholic, and the film in the end is far more interested in his struggle with that, she’s slowly diminished in importance until she becomes just a plot device. I’d say she’s literally thrown under the bus, but that’s not exactly true. (It’s a truck.) We so rarely get films genuinely interested in the interior lives of girls, let alone a girl like this. To go to so much trouble creating such believable characters in an even-handed way and end up downplaying one of them for the sake of formulaic Lessons Learned, for a character who is far more familiar, is frustrating. This is a film with considerable sensitivity and a fine cast, but which puts it to use on a plot that takes its time getting to much the same places any other less talent-rich after-school-special would go.

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