The problem here is that I wanted to murder the protagonist.
Boasting a weasely, sex-offender moustache and an omnipresent cardigan draped over his shoulders, Michael Angarano plays one of the year’s most despicable heroes in first-time writer-director Max Winkler’s Ceremony. He’s the kind of character who wears a red suit, with a tie that matches.
Making a case for Wes Anderson’s Rushmore having ultimately done more harm than good, this debut feature from Winkler (Fonzie’s son) plays on all Max Fischer’s unlikable qualities without any of the vulnerability or emotional resonance. It is a carefully shot picture, photographed in widescreen with meticulous attention to detail. Scenes whip-pan from one to the next with an escalating vertiginous momentum, and this young man clearly demonstrates that he knows how to make a movie.
Now he just has to write one about characters that I wouldn’t rather watch die in a fire.
Angarano’s Sam is a lovestruck writer and illustrator of terrible children’s books. Reuniting with his long-estranged best friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) for a weekend vacation in the Hamptons, ulterior motives quickly arise. It doesn’t take a math genius to put two and two together and figure out that Sam is using Max for his car, which happens to be a vintage Mercedes that billows smoke out of the tailpipe in the expected quirky indie movie development. (Nobody ever drives a Honda in pictures likes this one.)
What happened was that a while back Sam had a weekend, whirlwind affair with Uma Thurman’s Zoe, an impetuous, rapidly aging flighty kind of gal who would have been much more believable in the role 10 years ago, back when she was still wicked hot. Outfitted here in garishly unflattering pearls and furs, she stumbles her way through a half-written character, sadly missing that ineffable something that allowed Thurman to get away with playing such theoretical constructs in stuff like Beautiful Girls, when she was still in her 20s.
Zoe’s foolishly gone and gotten herself engaged to a pompous British documentarian, who likes to film himself wandering all over Africa and behaving like a horse’s ass. Stridently overplayed by Lee Pace, of the late, lamented TV Show Pushing Daisies, he’s like a Russell Brand character, only less charming. I don’t know what purpose Winkler thought he was serving by instructing Pace to play the role as such a relentless dickhead, but maybe that’s the only move he thinks he has left to make Angarano remotely sympathetic.
Sam’s “vacation in the Hamptons” with his best friend Marshall is obviously just a ruse for him to crash Zoe’s wedding and attempt to win her back at the last minute. Schmidt’s sad-sack, put-upon doormat of a pal is clearly suffering from some sort of mental illness, and watching the two bandy about in group activities, surrounded by strangers where they are clearly unwelcome is unpleasant at best. Marshall takes so long to figure out what is really going on, and maintains such devotion to a friend who treats him horribly, you’ll start to worry for his sanity.
Zoe, for her part, is also a complete wreck, prone to quickies with Sam on the night before her wedding, with pillow talk like: “If you could just be gone in the morning, before I wake up, that would make things so much easier for me.” Again, these might be the most horrible people I have ever seen outside of a Neil LaBute movie.
Drug-addled debauchery fuels Ceremony’s flabby mid-section, with a disarming performance by Jake M. Johnson as Thurman’s pill-head, alcoholic brother. Bridesmaids are manipulated into compromising positions, accidental suicide attempts come and go, and quasi-emotional revelations abound. It’s all strikingly well-framed by Winkler, yet we never have a single reason to care.
Credit where it’s due, the movie doesn’t waste any time siding with Uma. Why shouldn’t she marry a buffoon if this wormy, underage suitor remains her next best option? There’s something to be said for settling, I guess. Especially when there’s so much money involved. The moment she finally calls Angarano’s Sam on all his nonsense feels pitilessly close to truth, but she’s belatedly arriving at a conclusion we all reached during the movie’s opening sequence.
Maybe it all might have been saved by charismatic performances. IMDB Trivia tells me that Jesse Eisenberg dropped out of Angarano’s role shortly before shooting started, and perhaps that fine young actor’s natural, neurotic neediness could have lent the character a much needed extra two dimensions.
As is, he’s kind of a prick.
Director: Max Winkler
Starring: Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman and Reece Thompson
Run time: 89 minutes
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely