Movies about attractive twentysomethings sitting around talking about themselves have been all the rage lately. You could take everything that happens in Slacker, Reality Bites, Clerks, Before Sunrise, Bodies, Rest & Motion, Sleep With Me, and Barcelona and pack it into one movie and you still wouldn't have as much plot development as can be found in any Preston Sturges film. Slacker director Richard Linklater has forged a career out of making movies in which a) nothing happens, but b) the characters say a lot of amusing things.
Kicking and Screaming and The Pompatus of Love, both of which enjoy their South Florida premieres this week at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, belong on that list as well. The former film follows the trials and tribulations of four recently graduated college pals as they take their first tentative steps into adulthood; the latter tracks four guys a little further along in calendar years, although they're equally as clueless as Kicking and Screaming's quartet in matters of the heart. Both films owe an obvious debt to Barry Levinson's 1982 Diner, which just keeps looking better with age.
Since, by definition, one cannot experience midlife crisis until one has entered midlife, the confusion enveloping the four protagonists of Kicking and Screaming could more accurately be termed prelife crisis. "I wish we were just going off to war," says the perpetually bemused Max (Barcelona's Chris Eigeman). "Or retiring. I wish I was just retiring after a lifetime of hard labor."
Max and his pals are a sharp and funny bunch whose anxiety over what comes next dominates their lives. Bright and talented, they stand poised at the threshold of adulthood, with all the possibility that life has to offer laid out ahead of them. They should be excited. Instead, the pressure of making the right choices weighs heavily on all of them. Grover (Josh Hamilton), an aspiring writer, plunges into internal turmoil when his beautiful, adventurous girlfriend Jane decides to spend a year studying abroad in Prague. (Grover: "You're making a terrible mistake!" Jane: "You've never even been to Prague." Grover: "Oh, I've been to Prague. Well, I haven't been to Prague, but I know that thing, that stop-shaving-your-armpits-read-The Unbearable Lightness of Being-fall-in-love-with-a-sculptor-and-now-I-realize-how-bad-American-coffee-is thing. Prague...you'll come back a bug!") Grover cannot find his bearings no matter how many nubile coeds he beds in an attempt to erase Jane from his memory; nor can he summon the courage to go to Czechoslovakia and join her.
Skippy (Jason Wiles) desperately clings to the comfortable routines of college, chief among them his girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey), who still has a year of undergraduate coursework to finish. Otis (Carlos Jacott) cannot bring himself to leave his friends and board the plane for the flight that will deliver him to graduate school in Milwaukee. And then there's Chet (Eric Stoltz), a "philosophy-German" student beginning his tenth undergraduate year and proud of his tenure. He serves as both a role model and a warning to recent grads who, while they admire his ability to prolong campus life indefinitely, don't want to find themselves pouring drinks at the local watering hole and boring patrons with discussions of their thesis.
Twenty-five-year-old novice writer-director Noah Baumbach, not all that chronologically removed from his characters, deftly illuminates the dilemmas these charming, intelligent, young men find themselves in. Chief among Baumbach's tools is sharp dialogue that captures the vulnerability and doubt plaguing his characters. "What you used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life," quips Max.
But Max and his buddies (with the possible exception of Chet, who no one really wants to end up like) know they're living on borrowed time. The film gets maximum comic mileage out of their desperate vacillation. Ultimately, however, even these clever, engaging slackers find themselves dragged kicking and screaming into the fray.
Remember that annoying song "The Joker" by Steve Miller? "Some people call me the space cowboy . . . " et cetera. Picture four guys in their late twenties -- a poet, a playboy, a plumber, and a platitude-spouting psychologist -- who have nothing better to do than sit around a bar discussing the meaning of the term "pompatus," which Miller uses in "The Joker" and which has for decades confounded anyone foolish enough to analyze the lyrical content of Miller's songwriting. (This is Steve Miller, after all, an unconscionably successful pop-rock hack whose wordsmithery reached its apogee in the song "Take the Money and Run" when he rhymed "Texas" with "facts is.")
The Pompatus of Love is to Diner what Steve Miller is to Bob Dylan. Call it Diner Lite. The movie, while witty and ingratiating, feels thin and MTV-slick, which should probably come as no surprise because music-video veteran Richard Schenkman directed it. The cast is lightweight too: Adrian Pasdar, Jon Cryer, and cameos by Jennifer Tilly and Roscoe Lee Browne.
Equally superficial are the protagonists' dilemmas: Mark (the shrink) writes unsuccessful self-improvement books when he isn't overanalyzing his relationship with sultry Tasha; Phil (the plumber) loves his wife and family but is tempted to check out the fixtures of Caroline, the mysterious Englishwoman who flirts with him at his store; Josh (the playboy) sleeps with a bevy of beauties but blows a shot at true love with Cynthia when he stands her up on their first date to indulge a long-simmering infatuation with Phil's married sister; Runyon (the poet) whines and pines for the woman who moved to L.A. and left him behind.
To call the story thin and episodic would be somewhat generous. It came as little surprise to discover from the film's press kit that Pompatus started out with a modest premise -- four guys sitting in a room and talking about the women in their lives -- and just sort of expanded haphazardly from there.
But despite these weaknesses, The Pompatus of Love charms. Neither as resonant nor as universally appealing as the conversation in Diner, the dialogue in this film exudes its own airy appeal. Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink, TV's The Famous Teddy Z) brings a nerdy likability to the role of Mark, which makes the character a lot more sympathetic than he otherwise would have been; and Adrian Pasdar's Josh is convincingly shallow and self-absorbed. Both Adam Oliensis's Phil and Tim Guinee's Runyon are one-note characterizations, but the actors play that note well.
It may be a long time until another Diner-quality feast of great writing, powerful acting, and assured directing comes along. In the meantime, you could do worse than to select an appetizer like The Pompatus of Love.
While I don't usually write about film soundtracks (despite the fact that a really popular A notice I didn't say good A soundtrack can put enough backsides into theater seats to make a hit out of a crappy film such as The Bodyguard or Dangerous Minds), The Pompatus of Love merits an exception. The film's musical score includes pieces of two tunes -- "What Have You Done?" and "Miami Blues" -- written and performed by Miami's own Spencer Gibb, who, as the film's press kit notes, is an unsigned artist. It's rare enough that a film uses original songs from unsigned artists; rarer still that one of those artists calls Miami home. Way to go, Spence.
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An unhappy housewife feeds her unsuspecting husband hallucinogenic oatmeal balls. A Puerto Rican teenager in Boston feigns pregnancy to get attention. A woman wakes up one morning to find she can no longer fit her tongue into her lover's mouth. A young couple try to coexist with the creepy personal trainer who rents the room above theirs. A Ukrainian coal miner and his grandson attempt to cope with the loss of the boy's parents in World War II. An elderly widower sneaks out of his house late one night to go hunting, and comes home convinced he bagged God.
You've probably guessed that these are not the plot lines of upcoming releases by major Hollywood studios. (No serial killers, strippers, gangsters, or macho cops, after all.) Welcome to the University Film and Video Association Student Film Festival, which will be exhibiting selected works at the Graham Center Ballroom on the FIU Tamiami campus on Wednesday, November 15, at 8:00 p.m. The UFVA fest offers an opportunity to sample some of the most inventive student films from around the world. One would expect a collection of quality student films to be top-heavy with short movies from the better-known film schools in movie towns New York and L.A. But what one doesn't expect are first-rate offerings from Australia and Mexico, as well as a pair of selections from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
Twenty years ago student films tended to be long on content and short on technical accomplishment. Just getting your movie to look remotely clean, crisp, and professional was cause for celebration. With advances in technology and increased competition thanks to the explosion of motion picture curriculums at colleges and universities around the country, the curve has flattened out; today's top student films often have the look and feel of their Hollywood counterparts. The main difference nowadays is that film students haven't yet succumbed to the temptation of churning out brain-numbing, formulaic, commercial garbage. The siren call of the bottom line has yet to lure them into the usual traps. As a result, student film fests such as the traveling UFVA show afford a rare glimpse of filmmaking unfettered by the profit motive. Where else could you find a gem like Alice's Wings (Las Alas de Alice) A the story of an angel woman whose wings get stolen A which uses modern animation techniques to pay homage to the work of both motion picture pioneer George Melies and surrealist painter Rene Magritte? Or Peek a Boo, an animated, five-minute descent into the psyche of a little boy terrorized by scary dreams?
Fans of freewheeling, imaginative short films in general -- and experimental films in particular -- owe it to themselves to check out this collegiate cinema anthology. Just watch out for those oatmeal balls.