Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
In the mid-'90s, back when a bunch of fairly bad movies came out concerning the anguish of mooky white urban or semi-urban young men who might or might not end up living lives of crime -- I recall two pretty nasty and pointless examples of the subgenre being "Amongst Friends" and "Federal Hill," both pretty much forgotten now, and pretty overhyped then -- I wrote that as much as I respected Martin Scorsese and loved his film "Mean Streets," he and it arguably had a lot to answer for.
I'm starting to feel the same way about Wes Anderson and his wonderful 1998 film "Rushmore." It isn't as if that film inspired an actual rash of motion pictures about quirky, emotionally stunted, but at least slightly charming and worthwhile, young men and their romantic travails. But those prominent films that have taken their cues from it have been pretty damn tiresome.
"Restless" is the second such film I've seen this year. The first was the British film "Submarine," which was slightly worse. Overall. This one gets off to a pretty shameless start with the quirk, depicting its young hero, Enoch, a preternaturally slim young man with high cheekbones to die for, who wears a vintage black suit complete with a watch fob and -- get this -- high-top sneakers, God help us, lying on the street, drawing a crime scene-esque chalk outline around himself. After which he crashes a memorial service. And then another. Because he's got issues concerning mortality, which are laid out for us in later scenes, some of which feature his good friend Hiroshi, who happens to be the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot from World War II.
At one of the memorial services, he's busted, so to speak, by a not-quite-manic but otherwise entirely pixie-like dream girl, Annabel. At first Enoch's defensive, then he's welcoming, and winsome. Young love is indeed very beautiful, as it is shot by Harris Savides in various autumn-tinged bucolic settings around Portland, Oregon. The problem is that Annabel has a brain tumor. So Enoch, who as we've learned by this point is not just an orphan but who himself reportedly experienced several minutes of death in the aftermath of the auto accident that killed his parents, may soon be facing catastrophic loss once again.
While watching this I thought, damn, even when it's the girl who's going to buy it, why do all these films privilege the male's perspective on the process? (C.f., the abysmal "Dying Young.") Believe me, it takes a lot of male privilege to get me to even start considering criticizing a film on such terms. Because of the attractiveness and ability of the stars -- the lovers are played by Henry Hopper, the young son of the late Dennis who seems to possess all of his dad's early magnetism and little of his "don't look at me!" psychotic menace, and Australian bright young thing Mia Wasikowska, who seems poised to become the Overly Competitive Thinking Man's Carey Mulligan -- and the loveliness of much of the imagery, "Restless" is very rarely actively painful to watch.
The director here is Gus Van Sant, who can be almost stupefyingly hit or miss. This looks to be an assignment job for him: The production notes cite the film as a passion project for co-producer Bryce Dallas Howard, whose onetime college classmate Jason Lew wrote the script. Watching this I wondered whether this was as bad as 2000's abysmal "Finding Forrester." And, no, it's not. Van Sant's innate graciousness and way with young performers -- which he's displayed to excellent effects in films as wide-ranging as "Good Will Hunting," "Elephant" and "Paranoid Park" -- sometimes serve him reasonably well within the very contrived contrivances of Lew's script, and some of the film's unexpected flights of poetic license shake up the banality a bit. And every now and then there's a moment, a flash of light in a performer's eye or in a landscape, that makes you happy that someone this year is making a tender-hearted movie about vulnerable people. But the moment passes, the generally expected continues to happen, and we're left with another coming-of-age tale of getting to the emotional maturity while not letting go of the quirk. Meh.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.