A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
This movie begins with a wide-angle shot of a stripper on the stage of a club, stretching out at the pole as a song by a Cowboy Junkies soundalike band plays. (Turns out the track is by Goldfrapp, whose sound is not normally as such, but for the purposes of this review that’s not a distinction worth torturing.) Openings such as these happen for two reasons: the filmmaker has either seen too few or two many movies that open in pretty much the same way. At this point in time, there’s simply no way the idea occurred to him (it’s always a him) independent of a movie. So already we’re in potentially dicey territory.
We then cut to a college campus, where Harper (Tye Sheridan), a seeming straight-arrow law student, is leaving a scintillating lecture relating to Criminal Behavior and Reduced Charges Because Mexico, and patiently indulging the ravings of his knucklehead motormouth druggie pal Paul (Jared Abramson). Harper cuts Paul off by complaining of both his mother’s comatose state and his hatred of his stepfather, whom he believes is going to euthanize said mother and take off with all of said mother’s money and go live with some chippie in Vegas. Paul commiserates but, being a knucklehead motormouth druggie can’t really be of service, or can he?
Soon, Harper is in a seedy bar, drowning sorrows in whiskey and overhearing the braggadocio of criminal Johnny Ray, played by Emory Cohen, here taking a step back from his excellent work in “Brooklyn” and landing in the swamp of damaged masculinity from which he first emerged in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” a terrible movie that nevertheless looks like “East of Eden” next to this one. Here we realize the movie takes place in a not too distant suburb of Tarantinoville, a magical place where a movie heavy can tell his stripper/maybe prostitute girlfriend Cherry (Bel Powley) to “f**k off” while taking a swipe at her, and no feminist movie critic will raise a ruckus about it, because no feminist movie critic would be stupid enough to sit through more than ten minutes of this, and the menacing happens fifteen minutes in. In addition to all this delight, Harper drunkenly solicits Johnny Ray’s assistance in getting rid of the evil stepfather.
It’s at this point that the movie, perhaps suspecting it’s worn out its welcome with anyone who’s sick of this kind of played-out contemporary genre nonsense, says “But wait! Can I interest you in a TRICKY STRUCTURAL DEVICE?” When Johnny Ray and Cherry show up at Harper and stepdad’s nifty mansion the next morning to initiate Operation Vegas Road Trip, writer/director Christopher Smith, who’s been laying it on with the wide-angle shots and split-screen stuff throughout, splinters the movie into two narratives, just like, um, “Sliding Doors?” Yeah, I guess so. In one narrative, Harper goes with Johnny Ray and Cherry, and in the other, he stays at the mansion and confronts his stepdad (who’s named “Victor,” of all things) with less than optimum results. He also spends some time, because he’s a film buff, watching “Detour,” the grimy 1945 no-budget noir directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Smith draws a direct connection between the hard-edged sexiness of that film’s star Ann Savage and the Offbeat Good Looks of Powley, whose hair here is platinumized, and who would look drawn even if the side of her face wasn’t sporting a fresh scar.
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A look at John Sayles' brilliant "The Brother From Another Planet."