‘Ceremony’: Wes Anderson’s influence

April 14, 2011

The most influential film of the past 25 years?

 

Obviously, it’s “Pulp Fiction.” And Quentin Tarantino is the most influential filmmaker. After the success of “Pulp Fiction,” we spent the next 10 years watching films with hyperarticulate bad guys wreaking gruesome violence in stories told in nonlinear fashion.

 

But, really, that’s a no-brainer. Here’s a more tantalizing question: Who’s the next most imitated filmmaker of the past 20 years?

 

To my mind, it’s Wes Anderson. With his quirky sense of humor (quirky being a word that some use as a pejorative when referring to Anderson), Anderson has built a filmography that has been consistently his own: funny, touching, surprising films about characters who are flawed, though they mostly have their hearts in the right place.

 

I thought of this when I saw a screening of “Ceremony,” cowritten and directed by Max Winkler (son of Henry). “Ceremony” stars Michael Angarano and Uma Thurman and is as good an example of faux Wes Anderson as you’ll find.

 

Not that it’s a good film; or an original one. While it has an emotional truth and a distinctive tone, it clearly resembles Anderson’s “Rushmore,” a tale of impossible and unrequited love between a mistakenly confident protagonist and an amused but long-suffering older woman.

 

In his favor, I will say that Winkler has a better sense of the style he’s imitating than most of the Tarantino copycats who have clogged the festival scene in the past decade and a half. But that’s not saying much.

 

Like many of Anderson’s protagonists, Sam Davis (Angarano) is a young man whose sense of his own reality bears only the loosest connection to the facts. He writes children’s books, which he hand-prints and draws himself as a form of self-publication. As the film starts, he’s reading one of these books to an empty room at the New York Public Library – empty except for a long-time friend, Marshall Schmidt (Reece Thompson of “Rocket Science”).

 

Marshall is obviously Sam’s patsy, apparently because he has a car and money – and a desperate need for Sam’s company (after secluding himself in the months since he was mugged). Somehow, Marshall has developed the idea (fomented by Sam himself, no doubt) that Sam is on the verge of greatness, that his unique line of bull is, in fact, the truth, instead of delusional fantasies of how Sam would like to see his life.

 

So Marshall tags along when Sam drags him out to Long Island to a gathering to which they’ve supposedly been invited. In fact, the pair of them are wedding crashers, butting in on the wedding between Whit Coutell (Lee Pace), a dashing and self-absorbed documentarian, and Zoe (Thurman), the woman with whom Sam is hopelessly in love.

 

Hopeless being the operative term here. Apparently, Sam and Zoe had a “moment” some years earlier, which convinced Sam that, despite the obvious differences in their age and their height (Thurman towers over Angarano), this is one of those wild, crazy romances that’s just meant to be. That’s fine for a Salinger story, but here it just feels forced.

 

There are other characters more extraneous to the plot but not to the movie, including a couple of friends of the bride upon whom Sam and Marshall hit, and the bride’s depressed and substance-abusing brother (Jake Johnson). But mostly this film is a juggling act for Winkler, to see how long he can keep his airy, weightless plot afloat before it either crashes to the ground or simply disintegrates in a cloud of insubstantiality.

 

Angarano is an interesting young actor who’s had a lot of roles but has never quite broken out as, say, a new Dustin Hoffman: an unprepossessing-looking actor with surprising talents. He’s game here; so are Thurman and Thompson (who would make a great Woody Allen surrogate). But Winkler’s writing works too hard to achieve the frothy quality that Winkler attempts.

 

So it is with “Ceremony,” a movie which makes an elaborate show of its Wes Anderson appreciation. It mostly made me want to revisit Anderson’s films themselves.

 

 

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