Glenn Klenny, Special to MSN Movies
Sometimes, as a rude and inconsiderate child, after I would do something in keeping with those characteristics, I would apologize and my mother would sometimes say, "If you were sorry, you wouldn't have done it." I never quite understood how that made sense, exactly, but I did find that phrase going through my head relatively often watching the film "Submarine," so I suppose I'm beginning to get it.
The film's protagonist is a 15-year-old Welsh kid named Oliver Tate, a wide-eyed nerd who thinks he's kind of clever but is in actuality kind of tender and dreamy, but hides this via his glib eclectic narration and peculiar and mostly counterproductive behavior. He's clever enough to be afflicted by that particular brand of hyper self-consciousness that is such a commonplace among contemporary adolescent characters. This leads him to approach his various projects, which include bedding down a school crush (or is it the love of his life?) and "saving" the marriage of his hyper-drab parents (which is coming under threat via the ultra-cheesy New Age guru who just moved in next door) with a combination of crass pragmatism and unsupportable dissembling that invariably leads him to the threshold, at least, of apology. At a certain point, some viewers might feel that he might make less of a hash of things if he didn't behave like such a tool all the time. In a film such as Wes Anderson's "Rushmore," the near-intolerable behavior of its precocious teen protagonist was made palatable by, among other things, a certain detached wisdom from the filmmaking perspective; here, as in the almost entirely dissimilar "The Hangover Part II," the filmmakers (the picture was directed by Richard Ayoade, who also scripted from Joe Dunthorne's novel) seem to want the viewers to find their rather awful lead character kind of endearing, if not ingratiating. I wasn't buying it, and I was almost as big a jerk as Oliver myself, back when I was a teen.
Then again, while Oliver's a jerk, he's also not really a character: He's a relatively random collection of quirks and tics designed to elicit chortles of ironic recognition from a relatively well-informed section of the audience. I mean, there's really no other reason for Oliver to be listening to old Serge Gainsbourg records, on vinyl yet. Not one of the talented cast, which includes Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine in its adult cast and Craig Roberts as Oliver, can sell the material as much else beyond a sour live-action affected-hip cartoon.
Also contributing to the irritation factor is the film's forced-eclectic style. Lifting from Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Danny Boyle, Whit Stillman and older avatars such as Richard Lester (let's not even start on its tributes to tributes to Truffaut's "The 400 Blows"), it's so relentless in its piling on of snappy effects -- perfectly frozen freeze-frames, "quirky" mismatches of narration and image, and more, more, more -- that it kind of plays like "The Graduate" going through steroid psychosis.
For instance, at one point, a character opens a drawer. The bit begins with a symmetrically framed overhead shot of the character pulling open the drawer, and that cuts to a second, closer overhead shot of the open drawer and does so before the sound effect of the drawer opening has even concluded! Because the opening of this drawer is just that dramatic! Because we've never ever seen this particular brand of cinematic special pleading in any contemporary film before! No, really! All this busy work tends to blunt the impact of the more authentic observations the film has to offer (the rejoinder offered to Oliver by his crush and/or life-love after she's divested him of a certain condition endemic to adolescents is one for the ages) until such point as you wanna give the film itself a spanking in addition to Oliver.
Reviewing a record by the very affected, not-quite-new-wave combo the Fabulous Poodles in the late '70s, critic Robert Christgau wrote, "You've heard of punk? Well, this is twerp." "Submarine" is the twerp to whatever it is you care to call its cinematic forebears.
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.