Thursday, May 5, 2011

Film review: Charmless, shopworn 'Ceremony' deserves dustbin

Uma Thurman and Michael Anganaro in Ceremony.

By John Thomason

I‭’‬m always taken aback when unequivocally bad movies like‭ ‬Ceremony‭ ‬somehow pass the‭ ‬same‭ ‬art-house muster as films by renowned artists.‭

A snarky,‭ ‬misogynistic and intellectually vapid Indiewood feature,‭ ‬Ceremony‭ ‬belongs in Blockbuster‭’‬s direct-to-video dustbin,‭ ‬not sharing real estate with the likes of‭ ‬Certified Copy and‭ ‬Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

In his feature debut,‭ ‬writer-director Max Winkler offers a flat imitation of what‭ ‬Noah Baumbach‭’‬s Wedding Crashers‭ ‬might look like‭ ‬--‭ ‬an oppositional clash of‭ ‬subtle and broad‭ ‬comic textures,‭ ‬neither of‭ ‬which Winkler conveys with any degree of success.‭ ‬It stars Michael Angarano as Sam,‭ ‬a floundering,‭ ‬23-year-old children‭’‬s book author who reunites with his meek friend Marshall‭ (‬Reece Thompson,‭ ‬looking like a chalky character in a Smiths video‭) ‬for a weekend retreat.

The vacation is ostensibly an opportunity for the estranged buddies to bond and bromanticize,‭ ‬but Sam has designs for the excursion:‭ ‬Their squalid hotel happens to be situated next to a‭ ‬palatial beachside estate owned by affluent documentary filmmaker Whit Coutell‭ (‬Lee Pace‭)‬ who,‭ ‬over the next two days,‭ ‬will be marrying the love of Sam‭’‬s life:‭ ‬Uma Thurman‭’‬s Zoe.

Aside from Marshall,‭ ‬who gets the short end of all of the film‭’‬s sticks,‭ ‬Ceremony provides us with a dearth of‭ ‬sympathetic characters.‭ ‬Sam is supposedly our relatable conduit into the world of high society,‭ ‬but he‭’‬s essentially a shameless ass.‭

Whit is a self-absorbed,‭ ‬self-aggrandizing and remarkably transparent blowhard who makes movies about starving children in Africa that feature his bulbous ego more than his subjects‭ ‬– a character seemingly crafted,‭ ‬with Xeroxed inspiration,‭ ‬after Winkler saw Russell Brand in‭ ‬Get Him to the Greek.‭ ‬Zoe appears fidgety and embarrassed by Whit‭’‬s every utterance‭; ‬watching the interactions of the soon-to-be-betrothed,‭ ‬their nuptials are inexplicable.‭

Only‭ ‬in Movieland do‭ ‬artificial straw characters like Whit‭ ‬– in this case,‭ ‬the callous jerk we‭’‬re supposed to scorn while the working-class hero steals back the‭ ‬damsel‭’‬s‭ ‬trapped‭ ‬heart‭ ‬– get to bed and wed Uma Thurman.

Not that Zoe,‭ ‬as scripted by Winkler,‭ ‬is necessarily a catch worth desiring.‭ ‬She‭’‬s too underwritten to feel anything about her.‭ ‬She‭’‬s little more than a trophy fiancée who apparently selects suitors with the indiscriminate direction of a broken GPS.‭ ‬For a star of Thurman‭’‬s stature,‭ ‬it‭’‬s a thankless role,‭ ‬and one obviously written by a man‭ (‬Thurman has also,‭ ‬to my knowledge,‭ ‬never been photographed as unflatteringly as she comes across under Winkler‭’‬s camera‭)‬.

If this ensemble of archetypes only exists in the movies,‭ ‬it‭’‬s only appropriate that their actions are ones that only occur on celluloid‭ ‬– particularly celluloid from‭ ‬20‭ ‬years ago.‭ ‬Modern technology is entirely absent from this picture:‭ ‬Zoe,‭ ‬who is a good‭ ‬15‭ ‬years older than Sam,‭ ‬apparently met him when the two became pen pals.‭ ‬How quaint.‭

And there‭’‬s actually a scene where Sam takes a break from the road trip to call Zoe from a‭ ‬pay phone.‭ ‬One antique cliché begets another in this scene,‭ ‬as Sam clutches the receiver and rehearses‭ ‬different conversational points of entry,‭ ‬only to slam the phone back into its cradle and exit the booth.‭ ‬Sam‭ ‬is‭ ‬quite the mercurial misanthrope,‭ ‬and in‭ ‬a better movie,‭ ‬he might come off as mysterious.‭

Here,‭ ‬the overwhelming stench of‭ ‬déjà vu trumps everything.

CEREMONY. ‬Director:‭ ‬Max Winkler‭; ‬Cast:‭ ‬Michael Angarano,‭ ‬Uma Thurman,‭ ‬Lee Pace,‭ ‬Jake M.‭ ‬Johnson,‭ ‬Reece Thompson‭; ‬Distributor:‭ ‬Magnolia‭; ‬Rating:‭ ‬R‭; ‬Opens:‭ ‬Friday at Living Room Theaters,‭ ‬Florida Atlantic‭ ‬University

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