Thinking back on The Spectacular Now, I’m wondering where the rest of the movie went. Watching it was like having the lights come up at the end of the first reel, only to have the ushers rush in to sweep the popcorn from around your feet and tell you it’s time to go home. What are you supposed to do with a film where plot-points are posed and then left to dangle helplessly in the wind, and characters are introduced and then forgotten about? Much has been said of the movie by leading critics that this is the Millennial answer to Say Anything, a deep and touching coming-of-age story for a new generation, but I don’t think so. Years from now, I suspect that people will look back on The Spectacular Now and realize that, despite a few strong moments and a nice indie feel to it, it’s a pretty half-baked movie.
Oh well, no one can say that director James Ponsoldt didn’t try. He’s an assured filmmaker, as confident as he can be with a screenplay that lets him down by not finishing the job. The movie’s hero, Sutter Keeley, is a high school clown — the guy most likely to succeed at asking if you’d like to add fries to your meal. Despite oodles and oodles of faux used-car sales charm, he has zero aspirations other than to live in the right now, which includes constant parties, drinking, and hanging out with his girlfriend, Cassidy, who, as the film opens, is already tiring of his immaturity. After a particularly tough bender, Miles wakes up, bedraggled and hungover, on a stranger’s lawn. He peers bleary-eyed into the sweet face of girl. This is Amy. It turns out they go to the same school, although their vastly different social circles dictate that she, so brainy and untainted by the poisoned well of popularity, knows who he is, but, of course, he has no clue about her. He agrees to accompany her on a paper route, not because he likes her, but because he can’t find his car. This will be the first of many scenes where Miles pretends to use Amy as a means to mask the fact that he feels true affection for this girl that will soon blossom into love. They begin to date.
Ok, now stop. Here’s where you think you’d be seeing a movie about two teenagers who navigate the peaks and pitfalls of young love, right? A clever, touching story where the crazy mixed-up goof-off is tamed of his wild ways by the smart girl. Maybe she has a cool dad who talks her through the pains of the relationship. Well, you’d be wrong. For about thirty minutes, we get a nice exploration of a budding relationship between two opposite-spectrum personalities that’s helped along by natural dialogue and winning performances by Shailene Woodley (The Descendents) and Miles Teller, as Amy and Sutter. But then the screenplay introduces a hackneyed plot point, where Sutter and Amy agree to help one another accomplish a difficult task — her mother won’t let her go to college in Philadelphia, and his mother won’t tell him the whereabouts of his dad — and then commits a double sin by failing to live up to its own cliche. I’m getting into spoilery territory now, so be warned. In an early scene, Sutter encourages Amy to stand up to her mother, whom we never meet, and then applauds her late in the film when she informs him — via one line of pedestrian dialogue — that all is well and she’ll be leaving for Philly in June. [Insert record scratch here.] How in the world can you set up the promise of a major conflict in a movie like this, only to deprive your audience of the journey to its resolution? It’s as if someone accidentally dropped an entire section of the screenplay in the gutter on the way to the studio and forgot to pick it up. We should be mollified that Sutter’s resolution with his father is not dropped so callously, but it might as well have been: what happens between them has all the emotional weight of a gym sock.
The movie also makes much of Sutter’s icy relationship with his mom. This happens mainly through Sutter’s own insistence that she drove his father away, but little actually happens to show us why things are so bad, or if Sutter’s perspective is even accurate. Jennifer Jason Leigh does what she can in a sorely underwritten role that basically uses her as a plot device to secret away information from her son. Mary Elizabeth Winstead drudges through a brief but poorly developed part as Sutter’s overachieving society sister who ultimately holds the key to her brother’s destiny. We get a few unnecessary digressions between Sutter and Cassidy that go nowhere. We’re even asked to believe that Amy’s mom somehow supports her and her younger brother by delivering the local paper. Oh, and not only do Miles and Amy both go through the movie drinking out of hip flasks in broad daylight and in front of crowds of people, but Miles somehow manages to get into every bar in town and get stinking drunk, even though he’s only seventeen-years-old.
This is not great stuff. I wanted to like The Spectacular Now; I really did. I love movies like this. Well-made romantic comedies have a way of melting my cold, cold heart. But this is not one of those. Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller are likable enough, and their chemistry is palpable; in fact, their scenes together where they do nothing more than talk and discover things about each other are the best in the movie. This could have been a terrific gem about two young people falling in love, and it would have succeeded, if only the half of the screenplay that actually made it to film hadn’t gotten in the way.