Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Spectacular Now

I pity the high school seniors of today, who get as their pre-graduation romantic comedy James Ponsoldt’s vapid “The Spectacular Now,” whereas we in the Class of 1990 got the greatest teen movie of modern times, Cameron Crowe’s “say anything...,” which boasts a hundred scenes, moments, lines of dialogue, and characters truer than anything in Michael H. Weber’s false and phony script.

Weber’s protagonist is Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), the purportedly popular class heartbreaker who doesn’t seem to have that many friends or look, certainly, the part of the Lothario. Teller first came to my attention with a pivotal role in 2010’s superb “Rabbit Hole,” and I was sad to see him wasted earlier this year in the DOA frat-boy comedy “21 and Over.” He’s 26, and fits in about as well on a high school campus as Gabrielle Carteris on the original “90210.” Also, if he’s to become a movie star, he’ll have to have some work done around the mouth area. It needs touching up.

Sutter’s not stupid, he just doesn’t apply himself, and he drinks – a lot. A lot a lot. He’s a poor man’s Lloyd Dobler, but I call him the protagonist because this is definitely a film told from the male’s perspective. That’s especially a shame because this movie’s version of Diane Court, a hidden-in-plain-sight gem with the movieish name of Aimee Finecky (played by Shailene Woodley of “The Descendants”) is the smart one, the lovable one – the one through whose eyes we should see the film. Unfortunately, Weber has made her a cipher, an empty shell where a classic character should go.

We know she’s smart because she tutors Sutter in geometry well enough for him to pass the class. In one scene, she tells him she’s gotten into “a college, in Philadelphia.” She doesn’t tell him – her boyfriend – which college. I’m thinking, hello?? Have you ever met a high school student? She then adds that her sister is “almost sure she can get me a job at a bookstore, so that should help pay for school.” What planet are we on? Compare this to the scene in which Diane mentions to Lloyd – while she’s changing in the bathroom – that she looks up words she doesn’t know in the dictionary and checks them off. In one shot – of Lloyd thumbing through her dictionary, covered in penciled check marks – we learn more about Diane Court than we ever do about Aimee Finecky. Oh, there’s a comic book character she likes. That’s the extent of her development.

None of this is Woodley’s fault. She’s absolutely adorable, completely winning without a trace of makeup. But it’s easy for a guy to like a girl who smiles and giggles and says yes to literally everything he proposes. In one of no fewer than three auto accidents in the movie (two being one-car crashes), Sutter almost gets Aimee killed on the side of the road after having to make a sudden stop and swerving out of control. Aimee has so little self-pride, she doesn’t much mind, and only seems to care that Sutter is OK. I’m sorry, but we’ve come too long a way, baby, to be served up this meek and milquetoast a female lead. And the accidents smack of deus ex machina – of a screenwriter incapable of making his characters interesting without throwing shit at them out of the sky.

A word must also be said about the parents in this movie – well, Sutter’s, anyway, since we never get to see Aimee’s. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays his single mother, who since age six has hidden from him his father’s whereabouts (ever hear of Google?). Sutter’s sister tells him Dad’s a few hours’ drive away, and Sutter and Aimee go to meet him. Kyle Chandler makes a strong impression in limited screen time as a hopeless alcoholic who knows to his regret he has nothing to offer his son but an example of what not to become. But these are sketches compared to John Mahoney’s work as Diane’s father, Jim Court, perhaps the most fully drawn parent in the history of teen movies. Nothing in “The Spectacular Now” holds a candle to the image of Mahoney, in suit and tie, curled up in a fetal position in his bathtub as the feds’ investigation closes in on him.
I keep contrasting “The Spectacular Now” with “say anything…” because I think Ponsoldt very much aspires to that level here, and falls woefully short. This “Now” isn’t spectacular; it’s crap-tastic.

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