Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2011 9:36 pm 
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MIRANDA JULY AND HAMISH LINKLATER IN THE FUTURE

Existential whimsy and a wounded cat

Miranda July, whose 2005 Me and You and Everyone We Know had many admirers, is back with a grimly whimsical existential tale of a terminally tentative couple of thirty-five-year-olds, played by July herself and Hamish Linklater. July certainly has a distinctive style, a blend of the surreal and the mundane that seems to suit very well this story about quiet desperation in Los Angeles spurred by the doomed decision to adopt a cat that makes the pair separately revamp their lives.

Sophie (July) teaches dance to children, but isn't much of a dancer. It's about all she can do to slowly lift a bent leg with one arm extended. Jason (Linklater), whose uncertainty is balanced by a grounded manner and a deep voice, gives tech advice on the telephone, a job he’s willing to part with. The cat adoption is a major step for this wispy couple, who've been together five years. And the cat is special, a wounded, sick stray at the vet's called Paw Paw with perhaps six months to live, perhaps five years, depending on how much love and care he gets from his new masters. In the film’s most terminally whimsical streak July indulges in, Paw Paw has a running narration throughout, a monologue of brave desperation voiced by a squeeky-toned July. Archie and Mehitabel would hardly understand, but today's marginalized American middle class might get it and also understand the couple’s drift toward nowhere.

Sophie and Jason, who make a pretty cute couple despite their lack of focus or energy, and whose conversation often verges on the metaphysical, both quit their jobs. She has an affair with Marshall, an older man (David Warshofsky) who sells banners for conventions with a preternaturally articulate little girl who likes to dig trenches in the back yard. Jason takes a job canvassing for an ecology group selling trees door to door, which he pursues rather feebly. He also befriends Joe (Joe Putterlik), an old man who fixes electronic gadgets and has a house apparently full of the same objects Jason and Sophie have in their apartment. When Sophie starts to tell Jason about her affair, he freezes her on the floor and asks the moon for advice. All this seems pretty random, and you have to be a July-ite to like it. But July proceeds with bold assurance from one capricious inspiration to the next, and if you wind up deciding you've been had, it won't hit you right away, because the trajectory is quite inventive.

Sophie and Jason are a vague young middle-class white couple a lot like Burt and Verona in Sam Mendes' more conventional film Away We Go, except their voyage of self-discovery, a more economical one, takes them no further away than the next L.A suburb. Both films are explorations of varieties of twee that some will love and some will hate. Unfortunately the twee, while it can be quite entertaining if you open up to it, tends to get in the way of old fashioned processes like self-discovery.

My overall trouble with July here, as with her first feature, is that the parts do not cohere and the surreal humor is not consistent. It's true, that at film's end, Sophie and Jason, who are perhaps back together again, have become a sadder and wiser couple than the silly pair arguing on the couch in the opening scene about who'll go fetch the other a glass of water. And the very dark mood that hovers over the whole movie turns it into a surprisingly grim meditation about the lack of prospects for 35-year-old drifters. But Sophie's affair is completely off-the-wall, and the story doesn't find a grownup way to deal with it. Jason's monologues about tree-planting don't constitute even a sketchy world-view. Sophie has nothing to offer but insecurity. Is the idea that adopting a cat is a major life decision satire or grimly realistic? July seems to lay down her episodes like the surrealistic drawings called "exquisite corpses," in which different people joined sketches together without seeing the whole.

This time out, July has not blended together as many random vignettes as she did in Me and You... -- which has advantages and disadvantages. The story doesn't meander, but the focus on the couple is claustrophobic. On the plus side, July has found a more appropriate partner in Hamish Linklater. Even if there's still not much more sexual chemistry this time than there was between her and Deadwood's John Hawkes in her first film, Miranda and Hamish look absolutely right together, and that counts for a lot. You wish they'd found the energy to commit. Jason does want to have children and spend their lives together. But to be able to make that commitment, first they need to find something to do that they truly care about. Could that be making indie films, for instance? Miranda July, who had a naively dilettantish air when she embarked on her first feature, obviously has great fun making movies. Maybe eventually they'll begin to seem something more than just inspired doodling.

The Future debuted at Sundance in January 2011 and was in competition at Berlin, SXSW, and San Francisco, among other festivals. Screened for this review at the SFIFF. It opens in France in August, November in the UK, and is in limited US theatrical release from July 29, 2011. ( French critical response was weak: AlloCiné press rating a meager 2.8.)

A perusal of the Metacritic page for this film shows a decent but not great score of 67, due to many nay-sayers, including J. Hoberman and Variety's Peter DeBruge. Since I was hard on Me and You, and this shows a step forward, I went easier, but Hoberman starts out hard: "Is there such thing as a sincerely calculated naïveté? Or put another way, does Miranda July have any idea of how annoying she is?" He concludes she does, and finishes, "Sophie's (or is it July's?) coy narcissism becomes a criticism of itself, and her "sadness" turns into something truly sad." Other reviewers objected to this downbeat aspect. But July has her champions, including A.O. Scott of the New York Times, who speaks of this film as "powerful, unsettling and strange, as well as charming."

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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