Sundance has a way of punishing folks who try to see as many big-name, big-ticket titles as possible on any given day, getting a filmgoer on the ropes and pounding away. No one really expected that the Dramatic Competition title Austenland, a comedy from Napoleon Dynamite’s co-writer Jerusha Hess about a resort that recreates Regency-era romances from the Jane Austen canon for tourists, to be very good—but no one expected it to be quite that lazy and unfunny either. (Imagine a George Saunders short story with all the wit and brilliance leeched out of it, and voila!) Hopes were high for Kill Your Darlings, another competition title that looked back on a formative moment for the Beat movement—when youngsters Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Lucien Carr were bopping around Columbia University in the mid-’40s—and then dashed once filmmaker John Krokidas decided to turn the whole sordid affair (Murder! Drugs! Poetry!) into the literary equivalent of a Muppet-Babies escapade. We’ll talk about the bridge-and-tunnel car wreck that is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon’s Addiction in a second, but to suffer through three-in-a-row body blows like that is against every statute in the Geneva Convention regarding humane treatment.
But relief did come, and not a moment too soon. On paper, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now read like a very typical Sundance entry: Two high school students (Miles Teller and The Descendents’s Shailene Woodley) from small-town Georgia fall in love. They both have beaucoup baggage; he may have a serious drinking problem. The difference between the movie you just saw in your head after you read that sentence and what transpires onscreen, however, is huge, and the bulk of said difference comes courtesy of the two young leads. Not to say that Ponsoldt doesn’t deftly balance various elements—teen romance, substance abuse, familial strife—and present familiar tropes with a minimum of dramatic handwringing; as his previous Sundance entry Smashed (2012) proved, he can handle well-worn subjects in a way that doesn’t grate. Nor is that a slam on the rest of the cast, all of whom do impressive work—especially Friday Night Lights’s Kyle Chandler, whose performance as a deadbeat dad might be best described as “Bleary Eyes, Pickled Heart, Totally Lost.” (His turn essentially drives a stake through Coach Taylor’s chest.)
But this is Teller and Woodley’s show, and the chemistry between them lifts the film above and beyond the normal troubled-youngsters-humpin’-and-boozin’ social-issue movie. Teller, particularly, feels like a major discovery; breathing life into a bumpkin-sidekick role in that Footloose remake is one thing, but keeping audiences with Sutter, Now’s charming young fuck-up, is a feat. You see why folks might fall for his dialed-in smooth-talker act, and why people would still keep hanging out with him despite an inability to commit or concentrate on anything other than the present moment, full-stop. Woodley matches him beat for beat, turning her shy character into a geeky complement to Sutter (she introduces him to manga; he helps her discover the joys of whiskey) without devolving into the ol’ manic-pixie-dream-girl cliché. Even the dependency issue is handled surprisingly gracefully without being soft-peddled, though we know the other shoe is eventually going to fall—and when it does, you feel stupid for thinking that it wouldn’t. A climactic voiceover “explaining” Sutter’s emotional turmoil and turnaround is pure Film School 101, yet it still doesn’t kill the good will that Ponsoldt has built up through following this couple, or that the actors have earned through their rapport. Perfect it ain’t; quietly Spectacular it is.
There’s every reason to think after seeing the first half hour of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon’s Addiction, that this budding hyphenate is attempting some sort of James Franco-Joaquin Phoenix style immersive performance-art piece. Buffed out to the max—the slim star looks like he’s gained 30 pounds of muscle—Gordon-Levitt has physically remade himself into a self-conscious caricature of Garden-State knucklehead, complete with thick Joisey accent and a swinging-dick look that would embarrass the Situation. (My colleague Sam Adams summed up this vibe nicely: meta-mook.) This nice Italian boy has no problem attracting the ladies, but as he explains ad nauseaum via narration, “real pussy has nothing on porn.” Not even his true love, played by Scarlett Johansson as if she were Monteclair’s answer to Jessica Rabbit, can keep him from jerking off, six, seven, eight times a day. The man has a problem. Whaddayagonnado?
What initially seems like a potentially dynamic, if somewhat dimwitted, attempt to dissect the modern alpha dude and how the prevalence of porn warps the male mindset rapidly turns into a cartoonish addiction drama, Guido style—call it Jersey Shame. To call the points JGL tries to score simplistic (hey, commercials and Cosmo covers sell sex too; what are insipid romance movies but porn for, like, chicks?) doesn’t begin to describe how ridiculous and wrongheaded everything feels. By the time Julianne Moore’s middle-aged angel teaches him to look into someone’s eyes when he’s making love, the movie has reached headslapping levels of ridiculous. Gordon-Levitt has been making a name for himself, at Sundance and elsewhere, as a pioneer of DIY filmmaking via his hitRECORD projects and prevalent non-acting pursuits that would posit him as a man of many multimedia talents. This movie will be remembered as the moment the JGL cult of personality jumped a lake full of sharks.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear