By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Kyle Chandler
Most actresses can’t do it. In fact, very few can. To convey an emotion without words and using nothing but a slight look and a simple flick of the hair is something that when taken to task most women working in Hollywood would just not be able to do. Shailene Woodley, an actress who impressed me so much in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants two years ago, does it here in a way that can only be described as magical. I am not going to say when it happens. Nor am I going to say in what context. All I will say is that in a movie wrought with every type of human emotion imaginable, Woodley plays the moment to a T, and distinguishes this coming of age story as being different from most that have come before it. Adapted to the screen by 500 Days of Summer scribes Scott Neustadtier and Michael H. Webber (based on a book by Tim Tharp), The Spectacular Now tells the story of hard partying teen Sutter Keely (Teller) and how the relationship he develops with homebody Aimee Finnicky (Woodley) changes his entire outlook on life. When we meet Keely, he is trying to get over the bad break-up he had with equally popular Cassidy (Larson) and as he meets & spends time with Finnicky, he finds himself having to convince his friends that the time he is spending with her is not a ‘rebound.’ The real question is, what is she to him, and how will this affect any future prospects of a rekindled relationship with Cassidy.
Think you know what’s going to happen? Well, I have news for you. If there is ANYTHING I can say about The Spectacular Now, it’s that the relationships developed onscreen had about as much of an effect on this viewer as the storylines that developed around them. Because for the first forty –five minutes or so of this movie, you can pretty much predict what’s going to happen. Sutter is going to lay eyes on Finnicky. Googly eyes are exchanged. Dates happen. Friendships affected. You know. The same tripes that all romantic comedies have. However, something happens around the hour mark of The Spectacular Now that I both respected and almost rejected: it turns into a dark, David Lynch-ian tale. A tale that comes around to have a great effect on the characters, and made me gasp at least once or twice.
The reason for those gasps? The performances of those onscreen. Woodley, as already stated, is fantastic. As the homely character of Aimee, Woodley could have come across as pushing the boundaries of believability. After all, her character loves and looks up to inhabitants of the science fiction genre. But to me, Woodley’s a great example of what Lindsay Lohan could have been: a well-respected actress who takes her craft serious and makes those who act around her better. This includes Teller, whom I was honestly back and forth on through the first half hour of the film. Maybe that was director James Ponsoldt’s (Smashed) intention. But another widely used tripe in these types of movies is to make it perfectly clear that in the end, high school’s most popular kids are also the loneliest. Seeing Sutter pour whiskey in his drinking cup at work and introduce Aimee to the ‘joys’ of liquor did not endear me to him at all. And I felt that if played right by Teller, it could have been the opposite. But it was during The Spectacular Now’s final half hour in which it was almost impossible not to like him. Which is saying a lot considering that Woodley is almost nary to be seen in this time.
The rest of the cast is fantastic. Long time site readers know of my affection for Jennifer Jason Leigh. And in a very small role, she absolutely brings the thunder, proving that the girl still has the power to act circles around anyone she chooses (and marry me if she wants.) Chandler is fantastic in a very small role that will be tough to describe without giving much away. The guy has appeared in no less than four movies the past year, and each & every one has seen him be a tremendous presence. The Spectacular Now does not break that streak. Winstead (almost unrecognizable with dark hair) is utterly magnetic as Sutter’s sister Holly. A soon to be newlywed, she is at times the happiest person on the screen. But when she has to, Winstead knows how to turn the emotions toward herself, and a scene in particular almost made me tear up. Another actress to keep an eye on in future roles (in films that don’t have ‘Die’ or ‘Hard’ in their titles, of course.)
There were definitely problems with the film. I felt that the two leads’ best friends were really given the short shaft here. They both describe their displeasure at the relationship their friends have decided to embark on. But we do not see any attempts at both ends of trying to stop it except a sentence here and there. I think maybe the film’s editing room floor is full of these scenes. Not a good place for them in my eyes. The final half hour also has extreme lapses in logic that are never quite explained. There is also a sub plot involving Cassidy’s new boyfriend that made absolutely no sense and should have definitely been cut.
Nonetheless, The Spectacular Now is definitely a film that has to be seen. It is about the awakening of a person who cannot seem to apply himself to anything other than what is not important. And a girl whose teachings do more to build his character than he ever could have imagined. Sure, the film sort of goes off the rails at times. But the thing about a script like this is that eventually, it forms more of a figure eight than a complete circle. Meaning, life is not wrapped up in the bow that most Hollywood movies portray. However, if this plot device does not come across onscreen, Ponsoldt has the completely unfair advantage of being able to rely on Woodley’s flick of the hair and look toward the camera to conduct any symphony of emotion needed.