Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Five

Nathan Rabin @ Sundance 2012: Day Five

Smashed: Alcohol isn’t just the great social lubricant: it can also be the glue holding troubled relationships together in a state of inebriated dysfunction. In the powerful, uncompromising relationship drama Smashed,a hard-partying schoolteacher (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her slacker music journalist husband (Aaron Paul) share a bond sealed through poisonous co-dependence and alcoholism.

Winstead fancies herself the life of the party, a fun and freewheeling drunk, but after bottoming out with a night of crack-fueled oblivion and feigning pregnancy in front of her class after vomiting profusely in front of them, Winstead is forced to admit she has a problem. The equally hard-drinking Paul isn’t willing to make any such concessions and bitterly resents his wife’s newfound sobriety. When Winstead enrolls in Alcoholics Anonymous at the behest of love-struck coworker Nick Offerman (who makes the mistake of confessing his feelings for Winstead in a memorably cringe-inducing monologue that prominently features the once and future Ron Swanson fantasizing out loud about what it would be like to be inside Winstead’s “moist pussy”), the boozy bond holding their marriage together begins to fall apart.

Paul and Winstead’s relationship is initially defined by mutual enabling and codependence that first passes for tenderness but morphs into something much darker and more unsettling once Winstead unsteadily embraces sobriety while Paul continues to lose himself in a boozy haze. To its credit, Smashed doesn’t posit Alcoholics Anonymous as a magic cure-all: sobriety creates its own set of problems above and beyond the rift it causes in Winstead and Paul’s marriage. If anything, Winstead’s life becomes more difficult after she stops drinking and is forced to face the mess she’s made without the crutch of beer or whiskey to fall back on.

Smashed is a film of pummeling intensity and bruised emotions, a refreshingly complex look at how one partner’s emotional development can play havoc with the other partner’s security and sense of self. It periodically recalls the equally punishing (in a good way) Blue Valentine, another unflinching look at a marriage in peril except for a misplaced subplot involving Winstead’s principal (Megan Mullally) getting way too excited about Winstead’s non-existent pregnancy. Mullally and her sitcom contrivances seems to belong in a sillier, more superficial film, not a brutally powerful drama that offers no easy answers, just a whole lot of difficult questions and ambiguity. (B+)

Save The Date: A film that opens with acclaimed graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown’s delightfully childlike drawings of cast members Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Mark Webber ,and Geoffrey Arend set to Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” ostensibly has nowhere to go but down, but Michael Mohan’s romantic comedy-drama Save The Date somehow manages to sustain that level of high-voltage charm throughout.

In a revelatory lead performance, Caplan stars as a bookstore manager and artist too hopelessly attached to her freedom to see moving in with adoring musician boyfriend Geoffrey Arend (the husband of Christina Hendricks) as anything but a compromise. She’s got her eye on the front door from the moment she moves in, so when Arend makes a spectacularly ill-timed, very public marriage proposal to Caplan at the end of one of his band’s shows, Caplan storms off without a word.  

Arend is left a heartbroken open wound of a man, especially after Caplan moves out and takes up with a marine biologist played with puppy-dog earnestness by Mark Webber. He’s adorable, but then again so is pretty much everyone else in the film, including the always wonderful Alison Brie as Caplan’s engaged sister and Martin Starr as Brie’s fiancé and Arend’s drolly sarcastic but compassionate bandmate.

There are no heroes or villains in Save The Date,just good, sympathetic and wonderfully human characters trying to make the best of a situation that grows more complicated, impossible, and heartbreaking by the moment. Save The Date is an exquisitely bittersweet examination of the joys and perils of commitment, a swooningly romantic yet clear-eyed comedy-drama with a bracingly tough yet fragile heroine who remains sympathetic no matter how unsympathetically she behaves or how many hearts she breaks.

I saw Save The Date before departing for Sundance and again here today and I’m pleased to report the film doesn’t just hold up to a second viewing in less than a week; it actually improves. If the filmmakers had set out to make a film specifically for the A.V Club readership, they couldn’t have done a better job, and not just because Caplan spends much of the film in various stages of undress (though, you know, that certainly doesn’t hurt). Smart, funny, sexy, sad and refreshingly devoid of clichés, Save The Date occupies a higher evolutionary plane than most other wedding-themed romantic comedies. (A-)  

Red Hook Summer: Spike Lee wrote, directed and starred in his first two masterpieces, She’s Gotta Have It and Do The Right Thing, but somewhere around the time of 1998’s overwrought He Got Game,the phrase “written by Spike Lee” stopped inspiring excitement and began engendering dread.

Red Hook Summer, Lee’s latest and the first narrative film he’s written (or co-written, in this case with novelist James McBride, who also wrote Lee’s little-loved Miracle At St. Anna and the novel it was based upon) since the unholy mess that was 2004’s She Hate Me,illustrates why even Lee’s fans (including myself) are right to view his intensely personal projects with profound skepticism.

The film’s 130-minute running time is also similarly cause for concern, especially since the film could easily be cut a good 20 minutes just by removing some of the church sermons Lee seems intent on delivering every half hour or so. Lee can be tight and focused as a gun-for-hire, but he’s always viewed personal projects as irresistible invitations to self-indulgence and overreaching.

Red Hook Summer is no exception. The film casts Jules Brown as a comfortably middle-class 13 year-old from Atlanta who uses the video camera on his iPad 2 as a buffer between himself and the outside world. Brown enjoys a comfortable life in Atlanta until his mother sends him to live with his bishop grandfather (Clarke Peters) in Brooklyn.

Brown is annoyingly like most cinematic children: alternately bland and irritatingly precocious. He doesn’t have the presence or magnetism to carry a film, and Lee and McBride don’t make his job any easier by burdening him with clunky dialogue that would defeat even a seasoned thespian or by pairing him with a ferocious force like Peters.

As a man fighting for the soul of his community and his people because he fears his own soul may be beyond redemption, Peters delivers a volcanic, enigmatic, and tender performance, especially in a third act that takes his character down some very dark roads. Like so much of Lee’s ferociously flawed, incredibly vital oeuvre, Red Hook Summer oscillates between extremes: it’s borderline amateurish one moment and heartbreaking the next, a god-fearing and god-forsaken mess that could only have come from Lee, whose strengths have always been inextricable from his weaknesses. (B-)

Black Rock:Mumblecore goes Deliverance in Black Rock, a forgettable action-thriller written and executive produced by Mark Duplass (Humpday, Baghead) and directed and starring his real-life wife Katie Aselton (The Freebie), who also wrote the story. The film’s plot finds Kate Bosworth reuniting with friends Lake Bell and Aselton for a fun-filled voyage to a secluded, seemingly uninhabited island. The problem? Aselton still despises Bell for fucking her longtime boyfriend ages ago.

Bosworth manages to broker an uneasy truce between these friends-turned-enemies, but the women soon find they have more to worry about than old grudges and festering resentments when they encounter a trio of dishonorably discharged Iraq/Afghanistan veterans/hunters and Aselton makes the mistake of flirting way too hard with one of the men, who morphs instantly into a psycho once Aselton tries to pump the breaks on a make-out session and a terrified Aselton kills him in self-defiance.

This brings out the bug-eyed lunatics in the dead man’s buddies, who decide to stop hunting deer and begin hunting Bell, Aselton, and Bosworth. The shotgun wedding of mumblecore and bare-bones genre filmmaking is promising in theory, but lackluster and surprisingly generic in practice. There’s little to distinguish Black Rock from a typical direct-to-video thriller beyond its female protagonists and the prestige of the over-qualified, underserved cast, though Aselton has only herself to blame for the film’s sub-mediocrity. Simplicity is often a virtue in genre filmmaking: that isn’t the case here. Black Rock is certainly a change of pace for Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton, who generally favor more intimate, small-scale and soulful fare, but it’s also far from an improvement. (C-)

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