Sundance: 'The Spectacular Now' is a lovely and original teen movie. 'A.C.O.D.' is the comedy that Adam Scott fans have been waiting for
Remember how Elvis Presley looked when he was young? The perfect pompadour, the eyes a-twinkle, the smile so brightly and absurdly cocksure it seemed lit from within? Imagine Elvis reincarnated as a very tall and brainy American high school dude, with a quip for every occasion, and you’ll have an idea of the fresh yet slightly skewed charisma of Miles Teller, the gifted star of The Spectacular Now. He plays a high school senior about to graduate named Sutter, who would, at a glance, seem to have it all. Sutter already knows how to talk to the ladies — he looms over them — and the way he drops little aggressive jabs into his conversation could easily make him seem like a shark. Except that for all that snappy gift of gab, he exudes a sweetness that can’t be faked. He’s smart and clever and a little blissed-out, with a soft-edged understanding of other people. He coasts along in school, enjoys his part-time job (as a clerk at a men’s clothing store), and seems to get off on every moment of every day. So where’s the rub? During almost every one of those moments, he’s drinking (from a flask, or from a soda cup that he’s secretly spiked with whiskey). He’s precocious as hell, yet he lives in the moment, in the happy buzzed now, because he’s not interested in imagining a future.
The Spectacular Now was adapted from a novel by Tim Tharp, and that’s part of what accounts for its rich and exploratory psychological texture, but it’s also not afraid of being an all-out teen movie. There are hookups and dates, beer and sex, caustic discussions of divorce, a romantic triangle, and a senior prom. That said, The Spectacular Now is one of the rare truly soulful and authentic teen movies, like last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower or the classic one from 24 years ago that this one most reminded me of: Say Anything. Like them, it’s a movie about the experience of being caught on the cusp and truly not knowing which way you’ll land.
After a night of drinking, Sutter passes out on the front lawn of Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a girl he goes to high school with, but one he’s never noticed before, because she’s bookish and quiet. He likes her company, though, and falls into what he thinks of as a rebound relationship with her. (He recently got dumped.) Shailene Woodley totally nails the spirit of those smart, pretty, recessive high school girls who have so much going for them but don’t know it yet. Is Sutter falling in love, or is he using her? Maybe both. But we know that he can’t just go on coasting, and the way he wakes up to what he’s become — a lush — is darkly convincing and dramatic. The director, James Ponsoldt, made Smashed, which was last year’s Sundance movie about alcoholism, so clearly this guy has a bit of an obsession. That’s fine: I love movies that dive with worldly edge, sophistication, and grace into the super-charged and highly resonant subject of addiction. The Spectacular Now, like Flight or Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, is the story of a very functional drinker, but it’s no case study. The movie has a deep, touching nostalgia for the romance of teenage life, and that, in a way, is Sutter’s whole problem: He doesn’t want to let go of that. It would mean doing what every drinker, clinging to his adult baby bottle, doesn’t want to do: grow up.
* * * *
Adam Scott has a highly controlled, almost overly impeccable charisma. Handsome, with small facial features that make him look like the son of Liberace, he’s a very regulated personality, with a witty, cut-and-dried, hiply downcast delivery that, on screen, can often turn him into a unit unto himself. (He’d be perfect in a Whit Stillman film, or as Sheldon’s older brother on The Big Bang Theory.) Scott is a caustically funny and winning actor, yet there’s something almost preternaturally detached about him, which is why he’s so ideally cast in A.C.O.D. (The title stands for “adult children of divorce.”) He plays Carter, who has spent his whole life trying to crawl out from under the wreckage of his parents’ hateful, ugly divorce. In a huge counterreaction to their savagely childish bickering, he moves forward with extreme caution, and is honorable and upstanding. He owns a restaurant, has a devoted girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and also a happy blob of a little brother (Clark Duke), whom he helps support. He lives responsibly, without any visible problems. As it turns out, that’s his whole problem.
A.C.O.D. is a bubbly-smart romantic comedy with a new subject: the generation of kids who grew up with divorced parents, and therefore found no stigma in that situation, but who had to do so much precocious, faux-parental managing that it did a mind-game number on their emotional lives. Carter is an expert at managing his own life; he’s just not so great at letting go and living it. When his bro announces that he’s getting married, it means that their parents, who haven’t spoken in 20 years, are going to have to be brought together, at least for a little while. This, of course, is Carter’s job, and it takes him where he doesn’t want to go: into the messiness of how he grew up. The parents are played by Richard Jenkins and Catherine O’Hara, who pelt each other with amusingly below-the-belt insults that just get lower and lower; they square off and fight like two scraggly old jungle cats. But then their angry reunion takes a twist, rekindling their relationship. The smartest thing that the director, Stuart Zicherman, did was to keep this ha-ha situation in the background, and to foreground Carter’s relationship with his old therapist (Jane Lynch), who wrote a book-length study of him and several other children of divorce, and is now planning the sequel, about how those former kids are faring as adults. Lynch, less farcical than usual, speaks hilarious truths in her lightly hostile way. So does the movie. A.C.O.D. is like some wild and woolly French family drama that hums along in fast motion. The film sprawls, at times a bit too much, but it gives Adam Scott his punchiest big-screen role yet.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman