July's Intriguing, Precious 'Future'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
First things first: No matter what it is you've heard -- because this film and its maker, Miranda July, have gotten a lot of media coverage of late -- you should be aware that there is no talking cat in "The Future." There's, like, one shot of an actual cat, which is not talking, and then there are a good number of shots of what are very clearly cat leg finger puppets, accompanied by narration in the putative voice of the cat. This is not the same thing as a "talking cat."
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I say this as someone whose interest in live-action anthropomorphized animals goes all the way back, in real time even, to Disney's "The Shaggy Dog," and I bring it up for the sake of anyone who, like myself, had kind of been looking forward to this film offering up a character in the tradition of that adorable but evil Russian blue who says, with full animated lip motion, "I think not, baby puppy," in the first "Cats & Dogs" picture, and tell them, no dice, people. Instead you get cat leg finger puppets and the voice of the film's writer/director/star July, complaining in a scratchy fake-kitty voice about how the humans who were supposed to be adopting her haven't shown up because they're too caught up in their own silly human problems, and don't they understand she's dying? A lamentable situation for the feline character, to be sure. But still: NOT a talking cat.
Now to get back to that media coverage for a bit: The writer, director and star of "The Future," performance/conceptual-artist-turned-filmmaker July, is making her second feature here, following up her unusual and somewhat affecting 2005 film "You and Me and Everyone We Know." But feature writers and critics are already talking about her as if she's a pretty big deal, and a pretty divisive big deal at that. Apparently, she infuriates certain film enthusiasts on account of her making twee accounts of really pale semi-bohemians who sit around listening to NPR and have classic affected problems that pale people like. And apparently, said detractors are mostly themselves rather pale and affected, and the whole anti-Miranda rap is a self-hatred thing that wouldn't necessarily be mitigated if July were to go out and get her butt shot while making a picture about the problems of people living in Sudan. Now, I have some real problems with July's work, but the fact that she makes art about people somewhat like her isn't something that sends me into an apoplectic rage.
This new film begins with Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July), a youngish hipsterish couple lying on a couch, talking in that flat manner people tend to associate with youngish hipsterish couples and making fake-wry pronouncements of the powers they possess. Jason claims he can stop time. Of course in the real world outside their apartment they're powerless: wannabes with crappy jobs, no direction, a fear of ambition, little enthusiasm and such lack of competence that they can't get their whatever it is together enough to complete the adoption of a damn cat. A damn dying cat, as it happens. Their general dissatisfaction leads them into some odd corners: Jason half-heartedly enters eco-volunteerism, while Sophie enters an unusual sexual relationship with an older man who's also a loving single dad. And then things get weird: A puppet-theater version of Surrealism creeps into the film's world as Jason discovers that, yes, he actually can control time (maybe). Sophie is pursued by an animated T-shirt. And so on.
July's not an unaccomplished filmmaker, and she cannily adopts a very straightforward shooting style here, which makes the weird stuff resonate interestingly once it starts kicking in. The effect is frequently near-Lynchian, albeit lacking Lynch's perverse violence and sexual preoccupations. July's concerns are of a more metaphysical bent. But by keeping things simple, direct and small-scaled, she gives the impression not of a minimalist sensibility at work, but of an artist who actually hasn't fully fleshed out her ideas. As much intriguing material as "The Future" serves up from scene to scene, it ends up feeling frustratingly slight. July's real problem isn't "twee"; it's "dink."
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.