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Entries in 24 Exposures [2014] (1)

Thursday
Feb062014

24 Exposures (2014)

Skinemax Redux

Remember the other day, when I said I wanted to see more of Joe Swanberg's work? That's still true, but after watching his latest, 24 Exposures, my heart is more cautious than chomping at the bit. I can't tell if this is a good movie or a bad movie, what audience it's for, or even why it was made. But it's so damned interesting, and goes so far off the rails in such unexpectedly unfortunate ways, that I can't help recommend it as a study in...something.

Swanberg starts out strong, cutting from a kinky shoot in the apartment of hipster fetish photographer Billy (Adam Wingard), to a naked female corpse lying on a riverbank six months earlier. The body springs to life and Callie (Sophia Takal, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anna Kendrick), proceeds to get drawn into a fling with Billy and his assistant/girlfriend, Alex (Caroline White). Elsewhere, recently divorced detective Michael (Simon Barrett) gets called to a crime scene involving a brutally murdered model-type girl. Will the art world and the underworld collide in a steamy bloodbath of sex and betrayal?

Kinda.

While I can see what Swanberg was going for, his movie has one schizophrenic trait too many to actually work. The main dichotomy splits into another couple of sub-plots: one involves Alex's sudden realization that the guy she's been having random threesomes with might not be commitment material; the other centers on Rebecca (Helen Rogers), Callie's waitress friend who's stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship--which Billy is more than happy to help her leave behind. At the same time, Michael's story hangs out on the fringes, incessantly prodding the main narrative(s) for an invitation. The middle portion of 24 Exposures is extremely tedious, flashing between random sex in Billy's loft and vignettes of Michael sitting at his desk, eating lo mein in his car, and putting a gun in his mouth before settling on drinking while watching cartoons in bed. It's as if the second act were mistakenly replaced by an editor's reel of character clips.

It doesn't help that none of the characters are particularly bright or likable. In direct contrast to Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, these stooges jump in and out of beds and relationships with one another without the slightest hint of self-awareness. I mentioned the Alex problem earlier, but even Callie gets caught up in, I guess, Billy's mysterious-artist-allure bullshit. I didn't just call him a hipster to piss off hipsters: he's the poster-child for annoying, entitled, cluelessness. With a nasally voice that's constantly trailing off, a nearly pathological lack of empathy, and a wardrobe that looks like that of a Contemporary Lit professor who got suspended for selling pot to students, I never suspected for a second that this guy would have the stones to be a killer. In fact, I wanted nothing more than to see him get horribly murdered (and not in an ironic fashion, 'cause he soooo would've loved that).

Before closing the door on Billy, allow me to share the perfect encapsulation of his silliness: "I think cars are futuristic, y'know. I think if I had a past life, it was definitely before electricity."

I can't be too mad at the guy, though, because his nonsense is creepily effective. Not only does Michael become his (ahem) drinking buddy and follow him around like a puppy dog,* but both guys attract beautiful women with some of the lowest levels of self-esteem I've seen in a movie. I don't have a problem with this sad side of human nature being captured on film, but it's unsettling when the filmmaker appears to side with the misogynists.

With the exception of Michael's ex-wife, every woman in 24 Exposures gets naked. Oh, and they all just happen to be sexually liberated horn-dogs who think nothing of multiple-partner encounters with people they've just met. Sure, some feelings get hurt with Mr. Artiste's wandering eye, but no one leaves him--one, in fact, may even be killing for him (dun-dun-duuuuun!). For the record, I have no problem with breasts, but as with movies like Pirahna 3DD and Spring Breakers, there comes a point when boobs are just boring; not to mention indicative of an exploitive streak in the filmmaker. On more than one occasion, I found myself wishing these pretty terrific actresses had been given the chance to expose more than just nipple piercings. I can't imagine women who fell in love with Drinking Buddies' complex, strong heroines walking away from this picture without queasy stomachs.**

In fairness, Swanberg almost turns things around with a brilliant scene reminiscent of Nick Offerman's 21 Jumpstreet cameo. The writer/director/editor pops up to offer a cutting meta-critique of his own film film, which not only roused me from my tit-stupor, but had me cheering on the inside. His deconstruction was refreshing, and had 24 Exposures ended there, I might have considered it a This is Spinal Tap-level, straight-faced dupe-job. Unfortunately, we pop right back into the story to find the girls sufficiently disposed of and the guys humming along on a candy-paved path to undeserved happiness.

Maybe it was Swanberg's intent all along to make 24 Exposures a parody of Cinemax's late-night, soft-core fare from the 90s (the score is certainly reminiscent of that intrusive, gaudy style I'd hoped we'd left behind in the Clinton administration). Or maybe he wanted to make a modern-day version of a multi-faceted, hard-boiled thriller. Whatever the case, he forgot to make a movie that works. All the cute flourishes, flesh, and snark can't compensate for what is, in essence, a compilation of story fragments (some very interesting, some completely forgettable) that don't cohere into anything I'd recommend--except as a highly effective cautionary tale.

Chicagoans! Check out 24 Exposures on the big screen, beginning this Friday at the Music Box on Southport!

*Seriously, I kept waiting for a real cop to show up and haul this community-college-acting-program drop-out away for impersonating someone impersonating an officer of the law.

**Fellas, if you think I'm being too prudish about this whole thing, or secretly think I'm gay for not liking the film's copious cleavage, walk with me through this exercise: Imagine 24 Exposures is about a female photographer named Wilhelmina, who brings male models back to her apartment and uses her boyfriend to seduce these random guys into uber-naked threesomes. Still turned on?