“The Spectacular Now” rode out of Sundance atop an avalanche of positive buzz and near-rapturous reviews.
That thin Utah air must have messed with everybody’s brain cells.
The story of do-nothing high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, “21 & Over”), who stumbles backward into a relationship with good girl Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”), has drawn plenty of comparisons to 1989’s “Say Anything.”
But I grew up with Lloyd Dobler. Lloyd Dobler was an inspiration of mine. You, Sutter Keely, are no Lloyd Dobler.
Sutter and Aimee meet, not so cute, one morning on a stranger’s lawn. He’s passed out; she’s filling in, as usual, on her mother’s paper route to make sure the bills get paid.
At 6 a.m., Sutter’s first inclination is that she’s just coming home from a party. But Aimee doesn’t party. She never gets asked. Aimee’s one of those pretty, teen-movie girls who’s just sitting on the sidelines of life, waiting for someone to notice her.
Unfortunately for almost everyone involved, that someone is Sutter.
He’s the self-described life of every party, thanks in large part to his ever-present flask. He drops F-bombs in his college application essay, an extension of the all-too-obvious fact that he’s in no hurry to grow up. And he’s still hung up on his ex (Brie Larson), who’s rarely out of the picture.
Sutter insists he’s just “helping” Aimee, a shy, sheltered, sci-fi fan who dreams of leaving their small Georgia town for a Philadelphia college. “Worst-case scenario,” Sutter says, “I’m just giving her the boyfriend experience.”
As Sutter, Teller has a vaguely Cusack-ian presence — minus the charisma, heart, spark and several other key components — which may be behind the “Say Anything” comparisons.
He’s not your prototypical bad boy. You can understand why the ladies would fall for, say, Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond the Pines” or even “Blue Valentine.” Sutter, though, is little more than a selfish, immature jackass who refuses to stop day-drinking.
Despite the protestations of his bone-tired mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that Sutter’s a wonderful person, he’s really not. And Aimee isn’t strong enough to lift him out of his malaise, so she ends up being dragged down into the muck alongside him. You’ll find yourself wanting to slap him and shake her.
The whole thing’s just exhausting.
By the time Sutter drives drunk for the umpteenth time, you’ll be rooting for a telephone pole, maybe a guardrail, even a wayward, sacrificial deer to remove him from the equation.
Director James Ponsoldt told a similar tale in last year’s “Smashed,” so you can see why he was drawn to this one, from the “(500) Days of Summer” team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who adapted Tim Tharp’s novel.
“The Spectacular Now” does an admirable job of circumventing teen-movie tropes. There’s a dance, a party and a first sexual experience, but they’re all devoid of any sense of joy.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like my teen movies fun (anything in the John Hughes oeuvre), and I like them messy (last year’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”). But “The Spectacular Now” is so irrepressibly ugly, so raw, not even “Friday Night Lights’ ” Coach Taylor can inject any humanity into it.
Kyle Chandler, the movie’s last, best chance at righting itself, turns up as Sutter’s long-lost dad, Tommy. Actually, Tommy’s not lost. He’s just a three-hour drive away. But when Sutter makes that drive, with Aimee in tow, Tommy forgets he ever invited them. Despite not having seen each other in a decade, and despite Sutter’s desperate need of a positive role model, the dishevelled Tommy doesn’t want to ruin a perfectly good afternoon of drinking. So he drags the teens to a bar, buys them pitchers of beer, then sticks them with the tab before splitting to go have sex.
It’s that kind of movie.
And it could have been a very good movie, despite all this, if Sutter and Aimee had any chemistry at all. But he’s just the first guy to pay attention to her, and she seems more like the girl who got in his way.
At least “The Spectacular Now,” an adult movie that just happens to be populated by teens, is rated R so younger viewers shouldn’t be around to possibly romanticize their relationship.
Odds are, though, by the time things truly get grim, they’d be so bored they’d be too busy texting to notice.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at CLawrence@reviewjournal.com