Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Spectacular Now

Written at the time of the film's release...

The Sins of the Sons of the Father
or
What if the Hokey-Pokey IS What It's All About?

(500) Days of Summer was one of my favorite movies a couple years back, a smart combination of naiveté, winsomeness, and cynicism about the whole "love" thing...especially from the needy/selfish male point of view, and was very charitable to the elastic female point of view...something you wouldn't find in your basic Woody Allen (or any male-written) love story.

The director, Marc Webb is off (er...) web-slinging on the re-booted "Spider-man" series, but writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber have done a new screenplay of Tim Tharp's National Book Award finalist The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt, who's less flashy than Webb, a little less assured technically (especially in the sound department), but has a great casting eye as he's gotten a spectacular ensemble cast for this film.

When we first meet Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, who is brilliant in this, his face morphing between man and boy with split-second speed), he's filling out a college entrance question: "Describe a misfortune, hardship or challenge in your life: How did it affect you, and what did you learn from it for the future?" Sutter doesn't even hesitate: "Dear Dean of Admissions: Up until yesterday, I had the best fucking girlfriend in the world. Sorry, I probably shouldn't say 'fuck' in this..."

Miles Teller, the breakout performance of The Spectacular Now

It's true.  Sutter's just gone through a bad break-up with Cassidy (Brie Larson), who, in his eyes, was the perfect girlfriend and they were the perfect couple, the hit at every party (and there are a lot of them), but it's all come crashing down when she says "I'm done!" over Sutter helping his buddy get a girl, by giving a couple of fellow high-schoolers some of the ice-cooler'd beers he regularly stashes in his trunk. Sutter's good for that, but for Cassidy that's not good enough. They're through, so over and done.

Cut to the title. Next thing we know, we're looking up at a sun-blocking silhouette saying: "Hey!  Hello?  He-lllooo!  Oh my God, you're alive!"
It's 6 am. He's passed out on a lawn of a house he's not familiar with, his car is nowhere to be found, and standing over him is Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley, proving that her instinctually felt performance in The Descendants was no fluke), who is out doing her Mom's paper route, only to find a body on the way. They know each other from school. Aimee helps Sutter up, and the two continue the route with two missions: delivering the papers and looking for his car. The goals are short-term, which suits Sutter just fine.

It's clear early on that Sutter is a boat without a rudder (or even a paddle), and the women in his life, be they his Mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh, welcome back), Cassidy or the new Aimee, keep him focused and on the true. Or as true as Sutter will let himself be (and Teller has a wonderful ambling gait, which I started calling "The Sutter Strut" that is both assured yet not going altogether fast, keeping anything approaching at a measured pace). Fairly early on, we learn that Sutter may indeed be "the life of the party," but he's also considered a flake and unreliable. A heated discussion in the family kitchen produces a "Sometimes, you remind me so much of your father..." comment (and not in a complimentary way) from his mother and he's annoyed because a) his father, having left the family early with no subsequent contact, leaves a void about how that should be taken; and b) he harbors the notion that the reason Dad's gone is that it's Mom's fault, all evidence to the contrary gone missing. In the meantime, and for the moment, he is spending his critical senior year in High School marking time, regretting Cassidy and "hanging out" with Aimee.

"Dude, she's not a rebound!" he assures a buddy, but it's pretty clear she is, at least at the start, using her as an excuse to go see Cassidy at a kegger. It's a quid pro quo kind of arrangement: she can help him with algebra, he up's her social quotient—she's never had a boyfriend and he's an established arm to hang on. But before long, the conversations start to get deep, the facile conversations ("what's your 'thing?'") turn personal, the "maybe-I'll-see-ya's" become orchestrated "bump-into's" and the period apart starts to become a noticeable measure of time. They're starting to fall into something: for her it means someone to share her plans for the future and college; for him, a long-term commitment is asking her to the prom.
She already knows what he's just beginning to suspect.
Now, before we go too far into this, let me say what a joy it is to watch Teller and Woodley riff off each other. The lines are established, sure, but the way they stumble, falter, eke out, and fly from each other's mouths colliding in awkward crashing cadences and emotional ranges between feigned self-assurance to tip-toeing fear is truly something to see and enjoy. Both actors are top of the line working with the other actors, but, with each other, there's a yearning sparring that feels like the magnetism of puppy-attraction. If it ain't convincing as love, it sure is convincing as fresh conversation that feels real (and spoken for the first time), and is as fine as any movie bantering I've seen in years between young actors.*
So, with all that raw talent going for it,** where does the movie go? There's been so much writing here, one worries that too much is going to be given away, and any particulars in subject matter and how it is revealed will result in the spoilage of any sort of subtle enjoyment of the film and how it subtly ingratiates and glad-hands you into darker territory. It skirts Afterschool Special territory, but does it in so circumspect a way that you may not even be aware of The Problem, until you are confronted with it in the same way Sutter confronts it, in reflection, but he sees it, not when he looks in the mirror, but when he is especially focused on something other than a short-term goal, but rather on the realization of a dream. Sutter has no depth, except in what he avoids, and he only realizes it to his horror and imagined shame. The Spectacular Now includes author Tim Tharp's original ending for the book, but the screen-writers give Sutter an "out" to end on an up-beat note in the grand Hollywood "bauble" tradition, but at least they take a page from Mike Nichols' play-book, and don't make it a comfortable one, but leaves him...and the audience hanging on a precipice, leaving the Spectacular Now and entering an Uncertain Future.***
"Stumble, falter, eke out and fly..."- Teller and Woodley



* Come to think of it, they remind me of the Andrew Garfield-Emma Stone hemming-hawing in The Amazing Spider-man.

** And I haven't even told you about Kyle Chandler, who plays against "type" and does it so unnervingly well, you want to start a barroom brawl with the guy.

*** The view from the "Now:" Talk about an uncertain future—Marc Webb got bumped off the "Spider-man" series after the under-performing Amazing Spiderman-2, Teller gained a more reputable role in Whiplash and doused it with Fantastic Four, and Shailene Woodley has very nearly wasted her talent with the "Divergent" series (Teller has co-starred in those). These are all talented people—what are they doing wasting their talents on "tent-poles?"

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