Wednesday, April 20, 2011
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Ceremony."
Reading Cinemas continues to seek out small independent films to bring to San Diego audiences. The latest is "Ceremony" (opening April 22 at the Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters) starring Uma Thurman. You can listen to my radio feature.
Many filmgoers have just suffered through an onslaught of lame romantic comedies like "No Strings Attached," "The Dilemma," and "Just Go With It." The titles, plots, and characters are virtually interchangeable. So I have to give points to "Ceremony" for at least trying to break out of that stale formula.
The film opens with the narration from a children's book::"The princess smiled and said don't bother, I've already packed. So they rode off on the back of a white whale and with a bouquet of plankton they were betrothed."
That's Sam (Michael Angarano of "The Forbidden Kingdom"), the film's lovelorn lead. He writes children's books with the kind of happily ever after endings that Hollywood teaches us to expect. Only problem is he expects the same thing from real life. That's why he's decided to hit the road with an old friend (Reece Thompson of "Rocket Science") to crash a wedding and try to convince the bride-to-be that she's making the wrong choice.
When Zoe (Uma Thurman) spots Sam at her pre-wedding party, she's not at all happy. The two had a one night stad and subsequent "pen pal" relationship. But Sam doesn't see it as a one night stand. Instead, he sees Zoe as the love of his life. She begs him to leave and inquires if he had gotten the postcard she had sent him.
Of course Sam got the postcard. But he chooses to ignore the fact that Zoe is getting married and is ending their brief relationship. He also chooses to ignore her request to leave and instead imposes himself on the bride and groom, and their weekend party. At dinner, he makes an awkward toast that barely conceals his dismay at the wedding. But then everything about Sam is awkward because he's trying to be something he's not. He tries to put on airs and gets offended when people don't think he fits in. He complains to his friend Marshall about someon who has just asked him to leave. " I mean he just thought we were middle class just by looking at us." To which Marshall replies, "But we are middle class."
Sam, who arrives sporting a silly moustache. even pretends to smoke because he thinks that's cool. But Zoe calls him out, at least in terms of what's he's trying to do to her. She corners him and asks, "Quick Sam tell me your amazing plan? Should I pack a suitcase, hop in your friend's station wagon, and runaway with you to a one bedroom apartment?"
That sobering dose of reality makes "Ceremony" a little different from the mainstream romantic comedy. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that "Ceremony" knows precisely where and how to wrap up its story.
The problem "Ceremony" has, however, is not with its ending but with the journey getting there. In some ways the pretensions of the main character are the pretentions of the film. "Ceremony" puts on indie airs and attempts to challenge expectations about romantic comedy yet it is far more mainstream than it wants to let on. The film also asks us to accept the relationships of these characters without actually convincing us of the connections. The groom is painted mostly as a pompous jerk and with all the subtlety of caricature. Zoe is obviously older than Sam, and much taller. Her height actually works well as a visual cue of their odd couple status.
First time writer-director Max Winkler does his best to imitate the tone and cadences of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and films like "Bottle Rocket" and "The Squid and the Whale." So he strives for quirky characters, hipster dialogue, and pop soundtracks. But Winkler has only the surface stylings and occasional flashes of wit, and not the emotional underpinnings or social commentary to make his film a true indie success.
Part of the problem may be that Winkler is the son of "Happy Days" star Henry Winkler, and as such grew up inside the industry he feigns being an outsider of. Winkler graduated from USC Film School and had his dad star in his first short. That's far more Hollywood than Texas-born Anderson, who graduated from University of Texas at Austin with a BA in Philosophy or Baumbach who is a native New Yorker and graduated from Vassar. The difference in backgrounds affects what ends up on the screen, and what reads as true.
In the end, "Ceremony" (R for some language, sexual references and drug use) shows occasional promise but mostly pretense. But at least it knows when to wrap up the party and go home.
Companion viewing: "Metropolitan." "Bottle Rocket," "The Squid and the Whale"