Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Come back out of your shell, Lynn

I don't know if my examples are plentiful enough to truly prove the point, but I'd say a warning flag should go off when a writer-director names a character after themselves.

I most recently experienced this in Gaspar Noe's Love, which I suppose was intended to have some autobiographical elements. As would figure to be the case, Noe applies those elements in an unpredictable and haphazard way. Although it would seem that the movie's main character is based on him, as both are (or were) aspiring filmmakers who grew up in a different country than where the action is set, it's this character who at one point talks about naming his child Gaspar. As I never actually got what the connection was, my groan was delayed until the end of the movie, when I finally learned there was no explicit one.

Lynn Shelton's example in Laggies is a bit more whimsical, but no better. That turtle you see in the poster is named Lynn. There's as little ultimate explanation for it as there is for much of anything in this scattershot and highly disappointing movie.

I can sort of imagine how the bit came together, though. Shelton's last name is actually kind of a joke name you might give to a turtle. If you were into giving turtles comical names, you'd probably go with something more odd than "Lynn" as a first name, but "Shelton" would be a perfect last name, for sort of the same reason that one of the characters on Octonauts is called Shellington. So this theoretical whimsical turtle might be named something like Bartholomew Shelton, and he might also be a professor of turtleology. But the director abstracted the joke, got rid of all turtle-related references to her last name and just went with Lynn.

I think you can get away with something like this if it's less obvious who the director is, or if the person is someone you've never heard of. But Lynn Shelton has made a name for herself, and as much as they try to neuter all the interesting parts out of her, many of the people watching Laggies would have known that she directed it, making the groan upon hearing the turtle's name all the more immediate.

Of course, there's something more metaphorical at play here in terms of Shelton's career. A few years ago, I thought she was the tough side of the turtle, the shell side that made only solid contributions to the world of cinema. But in the last few years, her squishy turtle underbelly has been revealed, and she's vulnerable to criticism the way I would have never guessed or hoped. Maybe now she's hiding in that shell rather than using it to show her strength.

From the years 2009 to 2012, Lynn Shelton could do no wrong. Now granted, that only covers two films in her career, but they were the first two films of hers I saw, and they knocked my socks off.

The first was Humpday, co-starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard (from The Blair Witch Project), and it completely took me by surprise with its honest and unflinching look at the dynamics of a male friendship pushed into uncomfortable territory. Two friends kind of dare each other to make a porn video with each other, which sounds pretty high concept but is actually one of the finest examples of the mumblecore film movement out of which Shelton came. (And also, arguably, her last such film.) I ranked it as my # 12 film of 2009, though today it would easily make my top ten.

Then in 2012 she made Your Sister's Sister, a contender for my #1 film of the year right up until I confirmed Ruby Sparks as the winner on the night before I closed my rankings. The production values took a big bump up with this one as Duplass was joined by Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt, but the keen observational eye of mumblecore was still present as two sisters and one of their best friends/secret crushes navigate a weekend in a mountain cabin where things go to unexpected places. It touched me and moved me and ended perfectly.

Since then, though, it's been two features taking two steps in the wrong direction.

I thought 2013's Touchy Feely was okay. It was about a massage therapist (DeWitt again) who develops a phobia about being touched. High concept again, but this time the production values are in some weird no man's land between the good-looking Your Sister's Sister and the intentionally grungy aesthetic of Humpday. Nothing about the look of this film feels intentional, and it has a lot of flat and dead spots. I think I was kinder to it than it deserved simply because of the way I adored Shelton's two previous films.

That kindness had left me by the time I watched Laggies Sunday night. The movie is sort of more agreeable than Touchy Feely in ways, as it has a cheeriness to it, not to mention the luminescent Keira Knightley and the always funny Sam Rockwell. But this story of a stunted late twentysomething who starts hanging out with teenagers as a means of avoiding her search for a career and her impending wedding is also dead on arrival. It involves countless odd plot contrivances and clumsy moments, and never generates any viewer sympathies for its characters. I guess I'm not much of a fan of Chloe Moretz lately, but Knightley and Rockwell are both in fine form here, yet nothing they do can save a movie that is juvenile, boring, and strangely icky in ways that are not immediately evident, or not in the ways it wants you to find it icky. I could go off more on this movie in a full review, but I'll just leave it at that for now.

So what I can't figure out is how the insight that Shelton displayed in those first two films I saw -- and, as I understand it, earlier in her career -- could have abandoned her so much in the two films since then.

It seems pretty likely that a familiar old story is being told here. Make a good movie, gain wider recognition, get a little more money, get a lot more money, get a much more famous cast, put yourself in a position where a studio can and will give you notes. Come out the other end and no longer have a clear image of yourself, of the filmmaker you used to be.

But it could be argued that Shelton already passed that test when she made Your Sister's Sister with a genuinely hot commodity (Blunt) and two others who were starting to blow up (Duplass and DeWitt). Why was the decrease in quality delayed by one film?

I suppose these are unanswerable questions. Sometimes you just get an idea you think will work, and it doesn't work. And if anything, I suppose the involvement of financiers would make these movies seem more like neat packages, tighter but soulless, where the problems with Touchy Feely and Laggies seem to be that they meander and flop all over the place.

I suppose if I'm not having much luck going forward with Shelton, I should go back. She's made three films which I haven't seen, all of which promise the truer version of Shelton I'm hoping for: We Go Way Back (2006), What the Funny (2008) and My Effortless Brilliance (2008).

Maybe those earlier efforts will seem both effortless and brilliant.

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