Drunken Sandwich, by David Bax
James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is a really good movie sandwiched between the opening and closing sequences of a really bad movie. Actually, despite the attractiveness of the symmetry of that sentence, it’s a little too kind. Really, The Spectacular Now is just a pretty good movie sandwiched between the opening and closing sequences of a really bad movie.
We start (and – spoiler alert – end) with voiceover. The conceit in these two sequences is that Sutter (Miles Teller) is writing an essay for a college application. In true bullshit movie fashion, he’s writing things one would never actually write for such purposes. It’s as if the character is aware that he’s actually composing narration for a film. It’s far too tidy and concise an introduction for the film we’re about to see, which is actually a touchingly well-observed little story about two people who happen to find one another just when they are each what the other needs most.
After that initial stumble, Ponsoldt gets straight to work developing a close and personal visual style. His approach is not just casually beautiful and lyrical, it has a motive. Ponsoldt wants us to know that we are seeing the world as it is perceived by Sutter and Aimee (Shailene Woodley). With the exception of Sutter’s father (Kyle Chandler), who serves as a mirror that Sutter must study, very few characters even get many close-ups. It took me two scenes to realize Sutter’s mother was played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, as she spends her first onscreen minutes behind Teller and slightly out of focus.
Ponsoldt’s visual choices (along with director of photography Jess Hall) serve another purpose. Or, more accurately, there is another layer to the purpose that it serves. Teller is playing a character we have very rarely, if ever, portrayed with such honesty: the budding alcoholic. The color palette and the movement of the camera reflect the way the world can be dimmed but smooth to he who goes about his day with a sustained buzz.
While Teller nails the drunkenness and the cracked confidence of the least popular guy in the popular crowd, Woodley is the even bigger revelation here. She was great in The Descendants but she is shatteringly perfect in her role as the quiet, slightly weird girl who is living her life inside her head and her bedroom while marking time until the unspecified date that she can get out of here and get to where she belongs, wherever that is.
Together, Woodley and Teller are essentially perfect, effortlessly locating the tiny moments at the beginning of a relationship that each feel like new worlds have been discovered. Both performers understand that a conversation between two people is also a conversation between the entirety of each of their lives up to that point, as well as between their assumptions about one another.
This focus on moments is both essential and antithetical to the film’s thesis, which is that living in the now is fun but it lacks propulsion. It’s an impulse that feeds only its immediate self until each “now” is identical to the last one.
It’s a noble and novel point of view as well as a much-needed corrective to the “carpe diem” platitude that masquerades as insight in far too many movies. Unfortunately, it appears to be literally the only point Ponsoldt is interested in making. He seems to almost not notice how much his cast is offering. The result is a movie that underestimates itself.