“Youth is wasted on the young,” said some grumpy old man (George Bernard Shaw). We’ve seen the frivolous hijinks of teenagers living for the moment in comedies like American Graffiti and Superbad. The Spectacular Now attempts a more serious look at teen angst while still addressing the frivolity. They succeeded at frivolity and even a few moments, but what is the sum of the parts?
The film stars Miles Teller (21 & Over) as Sutter Keely, the ‘likeable party animal’ who not only sounds exactly like Jonah Hill (the film begins with a Sutter voiceover which made me check to make sure I was at the right film), but looks like if the kid from Boy Meets World grew up to be Shia LaBeouf. Sutter’s ‘pretty girl’ girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) has just broken up with him, giving Sutter an excuse to drink enough to make even Charlie Sheen call an intervention. One morning he is found splayed out on a random lawn by the ‘nice girl’ with the not-so-subtle name Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). Sutter and Aimee strike up a relationship that Sutter explains to his pals is just an excuse to help her out, falling into the ‘Pygmalion’ trap. This is a bit ridiculous because Shailene Woodley is gorgeous, even the D.P. of the film couldn’t seem to resist as her first shot is her face and long brown hair enveloped by the sun.
The main problem I had with this film is that it meandered for the first forty minutes in an attempt to build the relationships between Sutter and the people closest to him. Sutter never takes anything seriously, citing that he must always ‘live for the moment,’ and the writers (screenplay adapted by Scott Neudstadter & Michael Weber known for 500 Days of Summer)spent far too much time trying to nail this point home that when they finally got around to some actual character conflict the sudden change made by Sutter seemed disingenuous. It’s a hard sell, and the failure is not with the young actor, but with the adult writers.
In this came the film’s best aspect and saving grace: the performances. Despite being that guy you know you can never rely on who drinks too much and never takes anything with even a grain of salt, Miles Teller manages to find a begrudging likeability that makes it believable as to why people keep giving him the benefit of the known doubt. Shailene Woodley, who will be playing Mary Jane Watson (seriously, how is she plain?) in next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, gave a wonderfully downplayed performance. The two did an incredible job exploring the awkwardness of young love. Do not see this film for any other reason than that! It attempts to say a few other things about fatherhood and the future, but this message is painfully cliché until some insightful voiceover at the very end, but by then it is a bit too late and the redundancy has taken its toll on the story. From that I glean the strength of the source material by author Tim Tharp.
But again I go back to the fantastic performances of not only the two leads but the rest of the well-cast actors as the reason to see this film. Even funnyman Bob Odenkirk gave a subdued and dignified portrayal of Sutter’s boss. Nothing really unexpected or shocking happens in the story, and even when it does it is inconsequential, but the film does capture a few of those coming of age moments that are sometimes painful, funny, embarrassing, and always awkward and imperfect. That is a difficult thing to do, but done with delicacy by the filmmakers and efficacy by the actors.Too bad the whole is not greater than the sum of its moments.
The Spectacular Now debuted at Sundance and is now playing at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It is scheduled for an August 2nd release.