By Patrick Z. McGavin
Sundance Film Festival (World premiere)–The camera dives, floats and swirls about fastidiously in Mark Pellington’s “I Melt with You,” an alternately provocative, disturbing and frustratingly opaque work about male vanity, narcissism and the crisis of masculinity.
The title is taken from the classic Modern English song, and the movie’s sleek, jet accelerated tempo is fashioned to the blindingly anarchic and powerfully liberating strains of English punk, especially the Clash and Sex Pistols. (There’s even an extract from the notorious Tom Snyder interview with the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten for added atmosphere and backdrop.)
The movie world premiered at Sundance, and it was acquired by Magnolia Pictures. Pellington developed the story with screenwriter Glenn Porter about four middle-aged men, college friends, whose annual get together is an epic and frenzied bacchanalia of mind numbing substance abuse and outrageous revelry.
The four are introduced in a delirious roll call: Richard (Thomas Jane), the nominal leader, is the ruggedly good looking wastrel, a novelist whose writing career has stalled and who now gets by teaching English. Ron (Jeremy Piven) is a brilliant financial advisor who is being investigated by federal authorities. Jonathan (Rob Lowe) is a doctor whose practice appears mostly to be about taking bribes to write false prescriptions for his wealthy female clients. Tim (Christian McKay) is the most enigmatic of a bunch, sensitive though aloof loner.
The movie has a nervy central image of an imposing house perched atop the spectacular California coastline in the Big Sur the men have secured for their reunion. It’s a hideaway virtually cut off from the rest of civilization, the kind of sanctuary where everything is permitted and nothing denied.
At the start “I Melt with You” is a work of pure emotion, drugged out and heightened, to be sure, but fixed to extremes of pleasure, pain and release. The movie’s tone is daringly nonjudgmental despite the lacerating and numbing self-abuse. Ron has the financial resources to inculcate them from the rest of the outside world. The doctor, Jonathan, brings a black bag that contains pretty much every pharmaceutical drug available, including cocaine.
Much of the opening half has little if any plot to speak of. The cinematographer Eric Schmidt, shooting in digital and taking advantage of the low light and mobile equipment, throws out all the stops. The throbbing camera dances preternaturally and spastically and deploys a whiplash that’s assaultive, relenting and somewhat exhausting.
The almost inevitable rupture comes, not unexpectedly, when outsiders invade their sanctum. On the third night of their rendezvous, Richard convinces a beautiful local bartender to bring some friends up the house. The strangers that turn up, beautiful, sexually open and apparently willing for anything, represent the very youth, promise and abandon the four have collectively squandered.
As the excesses mount, the amount of pills, booze and marijuana taken intensifies, the movie Pellington’s point of view is paradoxically, both fascinating and self-defeating and it underlines both what is mysterious and enthralling about the film and also rather unsettling. On a very direct and visceral level, the movie suggests the result of untrammeled male ego and vanity meeting its comeuppance.
William Blake’s the “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,“ is given its own corollary here and the result is less than admiring. The bittersweet, lamentable and bruising experiences of middle age, taking stock and measuring defeat, regret and squandered opportunities, means for the four protagonists of slipping down a wholly different kind of rabbit hole. Pellington and has charming, attractive actors have turned us all into voyeurs, and we are invited to luxuriate in the transgress power, privilege and recklessness of the moment.
It is of course all illusory. The adult film star Sasha Grey, of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” turns up in a small though pivotal part as a tease of dazzling erotic possibility who offers complete and unbridled enjoyment. It ends and the time is never recovered. So in the strange interlude from the end of the final night to the deliverance of the next morning, the first of several shocking developments unfolds.
The movie takes a fairly radical though not completely unexpected turn. The sins of the past come home for a reckoning. The question becomes how do these already fragile, tense, defeated men cope with the specter of failure, as men, fathers, husbands and lovers.
It’s a provocative and great ideal, but the fact we stand always on the outside the characters and never truly allowed inside proves all too consistent with the film’s larger failure that it asks and probes the vital questions without ever truly having the guts or temerity to acknowledge or much less try to answer them.
The actors are certainly willing conspirators. In each case, they go beyond their own image, Jane’s toughness, Piven’s elastic charm and ruthlessness, Lowe’s dazzling ease and smooth confidence, and McKay’s raffish unpredictability. Too much of the film comes off as an elaborate stunt, an elaborate Method gesture, all movement and genuflecting, without ever forcing the principals to take stock of what they think, say or truly believe.
The talented and frequently underutilized Carla Gugino turns up in the final third as a local police constable who’s alarmed by the strange activity seemingly generated from the rented mansion bungalow who does her best to ferret out the truth. “I Melt with You” is a provocative work but also a flashy and hollow one. It’s a guilty pleasure that is easy to surrender to though difficult to embrace. It does down a little easy, without guilt or comfort