Review: The Spectacular Now (USA – 2013)

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Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Based on The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Dayo Okeniyi, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler & Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Runtime: 95 min // Certificate: Tbc

I wrote an article earlier this week in which I expressed a rather large level of anticipation for The Spectacular Now so imagine my disappointment when I tell you that, though the film was obviously very good, it left me feeling cold.

Based on the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now was met with critical acclaim after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. One year on and the film still hasn’t gone on general release in the United Kingdom, though word-of-mouth has helped it to build up a reputation as one of the year’s great “coming-of-age” stories which, when you consider how strong that particular genre was last year, is no small achievement. Alas, and maybe it’s because I believed the hype too much, this really isn’t the film that I was expecting. On one level that’s a good thing – I like to be surprised – but on another, more important level, it’s not so good because, for all of its ambitious subversion of the genre’s tropes, it doesn’t quite succeed.

The Spectacular Now tells the story of Sutter (Teller), the typical, all-American high school douchebag who isn’t quite as popular, confident or solipsistic as he might at first appear. He drinks heavily, parties too hard and is on the verge of flunking “math”, yet Sutter just takes it all in his stride. However, when he meets Aimee (Woodley) – a shy, retiring girl in his year with whom he shares a number of similarities – he embarks on your traditional teenage journey of self-discovery. It’s a classic coming-of-age fare, dolled up and repackaged as something with a bit more bite.

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For me, this is a film that often promises greatness but never really delivers. A lot of great stuff is crammed into its short runtime, and it’s nice to see a film that takes a somewhat downbeat and maudlin approach to such generic issues, but there’s something about the film – something that I honestly can’t put my finger on – that I found a bit, for lack of a better word, smug. It’s a film that is so aware of itself that I found it impossible to invest in the characters or their plight. The story plays out like a series of inconsequential moments, none of which really connect in any coherent way, which made it difficult for me to make any connection with the story. In a sense it mirrors real life but I’m not sure the disjointed nature of the narrative works in this particular field.

I think part of the problem is that the film has something of a Perks of Being a Wallflower feel to it, albeit without that film’s disgraceful exploitation of child abuse as a convenient, last minute plot device. It’s all a bit “middle class people with their middle class problems”, which is fine when it’s handled with humour (of which there is some, but not enough, here) but I find it problematic when presented as a straight-up drama. For what it’s worth, the film’s approach to alcoholism is brilliant and when it hones in on how this issue affects the lives of the characters it’s a thoroughly engrossing bit of storytelling, but the rest of it feels strangely inauthentic, almost as though the characters inhabit a completely different World to our own.

Most of the issues, however, boil down to the central relationship between Sutter and Aimee, which simply didn’t ring true. I get that this is the point but, actually, I didn’t believe that their relationship would ever occur in the first place. It’s not that it’s false but that it’s unbelievable. You see, though Sutter is a complex and interesting character, Aimee is utterly devoid of personality. Teller and Woodley are both great in their roles, but neither of them can overcome the fact that their characters are problematic for different reasons. Aimee is little more than a love interest – she isn’t a blank canvas, she’s a canvas that’s been painted pink and given nice hair and make-up to stress the fact that she is a girl whose only purpose to give her male counterpart a feint through which he can discover himself, while Sutter goes from opportunist douche to caring young man and back again in a manner that feels terribly convoluted.

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And yet, despite all of this, there is a hell of a lot to like about The Spectacular Now. For everything that fails to connect, there are moments of sheer brilliance. The melancholy family drama that makes up much of the middle act is handled sensitively and realistically, while the initial burst of humour and fun that makes up much of the first act is on a par with the best that last year’s most successful coming-of-age films offered. Teller and Woodley are great in their roles (which is why it’s such a shame that the characters aren’t as interesting as they needed to be) while the final moments are suitably open-ended and strike the perfect balance between optimism and pessimism. The manner in which the film explores its central characters’ attitude to alcohol is refreshingly honest (and never sanctimonious or preachy) and took me completely by surprise. Sutter’s final declaration rounds the story off nicely and the general tone and atmosphere of the film is strangely engaging, enough though the characters are not.

I guess, for me, The Spectacular Now is one of those films that I appreciate but don’t necessarily enjoy. In this respect it reminds me of my feelings about Taxi Driver; it’s obviously a very good film with a lot to say but, alas, it just didn’t engage me in the way I hoped it would. Things came to a real head when the “truck incident” happened because, rather than being shocked, I burst out laughing… maybe it’s just me but something tells me this wasn’t the intended effect.

Ultimately, The Spectacular Now is a courageous attempt to offer a new spin on an age-old genre but one that, at least for me, didn’t work as well as it needed to. There is a lot to admire here, and I’ll no doubt give it another chance in a few months, but at the moment I’m not convinced. I thought the performances were great, that some of the humour was brilliant and that certain parts of the drama were spectacular (lol, see what I did there?) but, as a whole, it wasn’t completely successful.