The Spectacular Now is a coming-of-age teen romance that’s so near-perfectly pitched, it transcends its genre. Based on Tim Tharp’s young-adult novel and scripted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber -- who also wrote the excellent (500) Days of Summer -- the movie presents youthful confusion in all of its desperate hopes and true terrors, and will likely ring bells of recognition in viewers of any age. The cast is ideal right down to the smallest parts, and the two leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, underplaying with impressive assurance, give knockout performances.
Teller (of Project X and the recent Footloose remake) is Sutter Kelly, a high-school senior whose glib charm masks a secret yearning -- to reconnect with the father who disappeared from his life years earlier. Sutter feels no need to move on to college: he’s content in his Georgia hometown, where he has a comfortable after-school job in a clothing store and maintains his hearty façade with frequent nips from a pocket-flask of whiskey he carries around at all times. He’s a guy who just wants to live in the moment, and the moment, right now, is pretty good.
Sutter also has a girlfriend, a popular blonde named Cassidy (Brie Larson). Cassidy loves Sutter and all, but as the movie begins, she has reluctantly decided to cut him loose. She is moving on to college, and as she tells her aimless boyfriend, “I don’t want a moment. I want a future.”
Early one morning, after a night of drinking, Sutter awakes on a suburban lawn with no idea where he is. He has just been discovered, flat on his back, by Aimee Finicky (Woodley), a girl in Sutter’s class who’s so mousy and unmemorable that he can barely place her. Aimee isn’t the sort of high-school goddess to whom Sutter would normally be attracted, but she’s…interesting. She agrees to tutor him in geometry, a subject that Sutter is currently failing, and she introduces him to the manga comics she loves. She’s never had a boyfriend, and she doesn’t figure Sutter would want to be her first, but he’s drawn to her: she may be no great beauty, but as they continue hanging out together, he slowly realizes that, in a special way, she actually is beautiful.
The plot conflicts are nicely interwoven. As Sutter’s search for his absent dad (Kyle Chandler) nears fruition, we begin to really wish it wouldn’t. And when Aimee gets accepted by a college in Pennsylvania, and asks Sutter to come with her, he’s forced to confront his deepest fear – moving out of the moment and into real life.
The movie is rich in specific character details. In its one brief sex scene, Aimee’s first-time insecurity (“Should we take our shirts off?”) and tentative surrender to the union she desires are depicted with a breathtaking delicacy: anybody who’s ever been here will be transported right back.
Teller and Woodley -- who was so good as George Clooney’s conflicted daughter in The Descendants -- are stars. They disappear into their characters and they bring us all the way along with them. It’ll be interesting to see them together again in next year’s Divergent. But whatever happens with that film (it’s being positioned as a franchise-launch), they’re already pretty spectacular right now.
At this very late date, the thought of sitting through a wise-cracking buddy-cop movie is unlikely to set anyone’s pulse pounding. 2 Guns is based on a graphic novel by Steven Grant, and the Icelandic director, Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband), brings to it a mad enthusiasm for bullets and bombs and chattering aerial gunships -- the action never stops, even when you so wish it would, even for a moment. The picture is blithely generic, but not…how to put it…entirely unentertaining.
Which is to say it’s a raging mess that’s redeemed by the presence of Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, playing two drug outlaws who are each unaware that the other is an undercover federal agent. Imagine the complications -- and, oh Lord, the confusion. Washington’s Bobby Beans, with his gold-grill smile under a slouchy fedora, is with the DEA; Wahlberg’s Stig, a sharpshooter with an unblinking eye for the ladies, is -- oddly, I thought -- with Naval Intelligence. Their target is a brutal Mexican cartel boss named -- for reasons utterly mysterious -- Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). Papi has $3-million in ill-gotten cash stashed in a small Texas bank. After an introductory scene involving some really good doughnuts (a recurring motif), Bobby and Stig burst into the bank, head straight for the safe-deposit boxes -- and find more than $40-million awaiting them. Whose money is this? The boys have no idea, but they haul it off anyway -- which is as bad a move as you might imagine.
The script, by TV veteran Blake Masters, provides Washington and Wahlberg with an unending line of snappy banter, and their virtuoso delivery of it is, in fact, very funny. Also on hand is Paula Patton as an improbably hot DEA operative -- although I think we can set her aside, since whenever she’s not slinking around in her underwear, that’s what the movie does. More pertinent to the action are James Marsden as a shady intel guy, Fred Ward as an iron-willed military officer, and, best of all, Bill Paxton as a cornpone terminator with a caterpillar mustache. None of these characters is exactly what they seem to be, and in trying to determine who’s really who, Bobby and Stig come perilously close to being blown up, mowed down or, in one odd scene, being ripped apart by the horns of a bull.
Along with its many shamelessly colorful Mexicans and flirty women, the picture also finds time for one egregious scene that nearly brings the whole enterprise to a halt. It’s set at Papi’s Mexican headquarters, where some of his hulking thugs have set arranged a line of chickens, buried them up to their feathery necks in the ground, and are using them for target practice. Watching these luckless birds getting their heads blown off -- in close-up -- is something I’ll not soon forget, as much as I really, really want to. And the fact that the guy wielding the gun is also chewing on a grilled chicken leg in no way qualifies as the edgy irony it was stupidly intended to be.
The movie is surprisingly enjoyable for a while -- Washington and Wahlberg are famously likeable performers, and they have a jaunty chemistry. But the plot is twisty beyond our ability to keep caring about it, and the endless action finally collapses into mindless uproar. Well before the conclusion heaves into view, the movie has lost its way -- it’s racing around like a chicken with its head blown off.
The Canyons isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year. It’s not even the worst movie I’ve seen this summer. It has a pronounced lean-and-hungry look (it was shot in three weeks on a budget of $200,000, much of it Kickstarted), and the story -- a slice of Tinseltown noir cranked out by Bret Easton Ellis -- is almost laughably lurid. But the picture marks a striking debut by porn star James Deen, who’s convincingly depraved as a nasty trust-fund brat; and it’s laced with real-life psychodrama of a sort rarely seen in any kind of film. It’s balky and muddled, but it holds your attention almost in spite of itself.
Director Paul Schrader, who wrote Scorsese’s Taxi Driver way back in the day and also directed the ’80s touchstone film American Gigolo, hasn’t made a feature in five years. The Canyons is his desperate attempt at a comeback, and when he opens the picture with a lingering montage of abandoned movie theaters, you can feel him signaling his glum feelings about the current state of the Hollywood film industry.
The star is Lindsay Lohan, and…well, you know about her. She’s a good actor who has chosen to obscure her talent -- and trash her employability -- in a haze of tabloid chaos. Judging by a much-discussed early set-visit report by New York Times writer Stephen Rodrick, Lohan was a major pain in the butt on this film, and you can’t help flinching at the weathered state of her face (and her sometimes-bizarre makeup choices). But she’s committed to creating a character here, and in one scene toward the end of the movie -- when the lost woman she plays is being viciously humiliated by her boyfriend -- we’re reminded of how good this lost woman can be.
The movie opens with a long, dull bar scene that threatens to capsize the film before it even gets started. Here we meet the characters: Tara (Lohan), a model-actress-whatever who has sold out for a squalid life of luxury with Christian (Deen), an icy creep who forces her to have sex with strangers while he records the action on his iPhone; and Ryan (Nolan Funk), the ex-boyfriend Tara dumped, who’s still torching for her but is meanwhile biding his time in a duplicitous relationship with Christian’s assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks). Tara and Ryan have lately reconnected and started sneaking nooners, and Christian is growing suspicious -- which is the last thing anyone would want this violent sociopath to be.
Deen seems right at home in this micro-budget quickie (in his own world, he made 56 porn films last year alone). By all accounts an easygoing nice guy in real life, he gives a spare, chilling performance as a man who treats everybody like dirt and isn’t above doing anything to get his way. He’s also naturally at ease with the film’s nudity, of which there’s quite a bit, both male and female. But the centerpiece sex scene -- a four-way with Christian and Tara and another couple in which Tara finally takes control -- isn’t entirely gratuitous.
Lohan navigates the movie’s wall-to-wall sleaze with considerable energy, and she’s sometimes quite affecting. But echoes of her outside life keep glinting through. When she delivers a line like “When was the last time you saw a movie in a theater?,” she’s projecting for Schrader and Ellis. But when she says “I need someone to take care of me,” she could be doing some signaling of her own.