When we first meet Sutter Keely, the high school senior played by the versatile Miles Teller in the coming of age dramedy The Spectacular Now, he’s staring at a blank computer screen. He’s applying for college, you see, and he’s gotten to the personal essay part of the form. The film that follows, in which the charming scoundrel with substance abuse issues falls in love and confronts his demons, plays like a slow-burn wake-up call, both for the handsome teen and an audience that’s become jaded by the pre-fabricated romances intended to make us empathize with people that only ring true in the filmmakers’ imagination.
It’s clear writer-director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) wants to make a movie that’s strong enough to stand on your date-night DVD shelf next to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, and he nearly pulls it off. It’s a daunting challenge, not only because he has some rather large shoes to fill expectations-wise, but because his screenwriters, (500) Days of Summer writing duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, never met a high-concept gimmick they didn’t like. Summer was clever and playful, but it also indulged the writers’ penchant for look-at-me-Ma storytelling acrobatics. (Don’t get me started on that movie’s jaw-droppingly inane last line of dialogue.) Ponsoldt, all lived-in naturalism, stamps out such fanciful impulses, precisely what these show-offs need for their material, based this time around on a young adult novel by Tim Tharp, to click onscreen. The result is an achingly sweet boy-meets-girl yarn that could have used some more tough love towards its main character but works its magic nevertheless.
Sutter, the life of the party among his classmates, gets dumped by his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson, solid here, though a tad too old for the role) because, well, she sees no future in a guy who doesn’t think about his future. After making an ass of himself at a house party, Sutter blacks out and wakes up on a lawn. Wait, that’s not quite right. Aimee Finecky (The Descendants‘ Shailene Woodley), who’s in the middle of carrying out her mother’s paper route, wakes him up. A disheveled Sutter offers to help out, and the easygoing Aimee, who is fully aware of Sutter’s reputation, warily, tentatively lets down her guard.
“I’m just trying to help this girl out,” Sutter confides to Ricky (Masam Holden), a close friend who fears he’s going to break the heart of a shy girl who likes manga (Japanese comics) but doesn’t look or sound like a Hot Topic poseur. Before he knows it, Sutter’s telling Aimee about his less-than-functional family, about how his dad (Kyle Chandler) walked out on him and his now-married older sister Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) when they were kids. She makes a deal with him: She’ll stand up to her mom, who isn’t even planning to let her go to college, if he stands up to his mother (Jenifer Jason Leigh), who won’t even let him contact his dad. Ponsoldt and his team weave in real world problems with matters of the heart, all the while gradually guiding our attention towards the elephant in the room: Sutter’s drinking.
As long as The Spectacular Now allows Sutter and Aimee’s opposites-attract bond to blossom organically, it’s a treat, wise and tender and intimate. It’s only when Neustadter and Weber begin throwing obstacles to their happiness that the film stumbles, not because we don’t want reality to intrude on the young lovers’ reverie, but because the string of incidents putting their relationship in jeopardy feel so manufactured. Ponsoldt’s sensitive direction, coupled with the nuanced performance he elicits from Woodley and, particularly, Teller, go a long way to compensate for the overly calculated story turns. They also depict Sutter’s budding alcoholism in way that sidesteps the moralizing afterschool-special feel of similar films that address teenage drinking, but without trivializing the issue.
Sutter Keely’s not the only multi-faceted leading man battling an affinity with the bottle at the movies this weekend. Across the pond, Gary King (Simon Pegg) dumps rehab and talks four old buddies to recreate their June 1990 epic pub crawl at the picturesque English village of Newton Haven, where they grew up together. Here’s the thing: King’s a pushy man-child with a selective memory that conveniently overlooks the times he’s screwed his friends over, none more egregiously than former BFF Andy Knightley (Nick Frost), who no longer speaks to him. Ah, but Gary’s got a way to win over even those who wish him ill, much like the guy who co-wrote and directed The World’s End, the gifted Edgar Wright.
What’s surprising about his third collaboration with Pegg, who also starred in and co-wrote Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, is how seriously it takes Gary’s substance abuse and the way he hurt those closest to him. He’s made a comedy that bears his signature stylistic trademarks – wild camera zooms, inventive montage editing, crowd scenes on the verge of becoming dance routines – but that resists sweeping Gary’s demons under the rug. Off they go, Gary and the rest of his 40-ish brigade: Andy (Frost, playing the straight-man role, for a change), suave real estate agent Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), recovering bully victim Peter Page (Eddie Marsan) and health nut Steven Prince (Paddy Considine). What begins as a jolly trip down memory lane for Gary and his reluctant companions morphs into a sobering portrait of arrested development. The laughs here are coupled with a blistering sting, as Gary, to his friends’ chagrin, continues behaving like an irresponsible teenager. (This is the kind of movie Sutter Keely would watch at home while chugging brewskies.)
In the middle of their drinking venture, Gary starts noticing the townspeople are behaving like extras from The Stepford Wives, and Wright handles the tonal shift that ensues with dexterity and a rollicking sense of fun. I just wish the mayhem that takes place once Gary threatens to compromise the village’s secret had more of the visceral flair of the two prior entries in what is being billed as the Cornetto Trilogy, named after the ice cream products present in all three movies. The menace our unsuspecting ensemble comes across feels like it was hashed out on a napkin during happy hour at a neighborhood pub much like the ones in Gary’s beer-drinking marathon.
I won’t go into details since, after all, the movie’s mankind-in-peril twists are supposed to come out of nowhere, but Wright fans expecting buckets of (cheerfully rendered) gore are going to be more than a bit let down by what the filmmaker has to offer this time around. Having adored every single film Wright has made prior to The World’s End, I set the bar pretty high when it comes to him, so let me reiterate that the pluses outweigh the minuses here; at one point, his latest effort feels like the movie that the screen adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy should have been like. Call this Big Chill for sci-fi geeks the summer’s most pleasant disappointment.
Edgar Wright’s The World’s End hits are theaters Friday in wide release, That same day, The Spectacular Now opens at AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place 24 and Regal Cinemas South Beach.