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Entries in James White [2015] (1)

Friday
Dec042015

James White (2015)

White's People Problems

What if Mark Renton never got off the couch, except to score heroin? What if Alex DeLarge never betrayed his mates? What if Patrick Bateman was just a boring, frustrated day-trader who never picked up a knife? Writer/director Josh Mond unwittingly answers these questions in the fittingly titled James White, another entry in the Disaffected White Guy genre that stands out because its protagonist is so unremarkable as to make the film about him insufferable. This is bad high school poetry as filmmaking, a soft, self-pitying look at depression that assumes we'll care about the main character simply because he’s filmed almost exclusively in sad-face close-up, and because his mom has cancer.

Chris Abbott stars as James, a twenty-something layabout who lives on his rich mother’s couch. Gail (Cynthia Nixon) allowed him to stay in the nest two years longer than she’d intended, but then she fell ill and relied on James to take care of her for another two years. The film opens with James running late to his father’s Shiva, thanks to a mid-day bender at a dance club. Later, he visits a bar with his childhood friend, Nick (Scott Mescudi), and proceeds to insult two patrons, get into a swinging match with the staff, and swipe a fifth of whiskey on his way out the door. We all grieve in our own ways.

Judgmental? You bet, but it comes from a place of love. No one appreciates a good romanticized substance-abuse story like me. I found Requiem for a Dream uplifting, and read Charles Bukowski to relax. But those stories, along with the epic works of Hunter S. Thompson, Bret Easton Ellis, and other titans of darkness, hinge on characters who learn something from their sojourns to the edge, bringing back lessons about society and/or self that even teetotaling squares can relate to. Mond presents us with a baby. Not a child—an overgrown, clueless, pampered, simpering mess whose every relationship is a self-hating indictment of those who tolerate even five minutes of his bullshit. There is a terrific scene towards the end in which Ben (Ron Livingston), a family friend and editor at New York Magazine, sets James straight about his addiction to avoiding life. It’s not clear that the words make it past James' booze-bagged eyes, but Mond at least (and at last) offers a hint that he’s not completely in his character’s corner.

Why does James interview at New York Magazine? He’s a writer. More accurately, he claims to be a writer. Gail lectures him on the importance of jotting down his feelings. He carries around a little red notebook in his back pocket, and even offers some wrinkly pages for Ben to read. But we never actually see him write. He is content with beating up friends and strangers indiscriminately, and picking up an underage girl while vacationing in Mexico on his sick mother’s dime. James may look like the tortured-artist love-child of Kit Harington and Shia LaBeouf, but he’s a straight up Kardashian whose lack of charisma, self-awareness, or character arc distends the film’s deceptive eighty-five-minute into a hospice fever dream that’s more dare than creative achievement.

Speaking of hospice, James’ complicated relationship with Gail’s cancer is indicative of the film’s lack of narrative cohesion. Mom’s illness resurfaces, and Mond includes plenty of scenes that allow Abbott to Brando his indignation at medical staff—whining about the hospital’s shortage of rooms and available orderlies, and questioning the dial-a-nurse’s advice on treating a 102-degree fever. These are understandable meltdowns, for those who’ve never had to help an ailing loved one. But James lived with Gail for two years during her first go-round, and seems to have forgotten how just about everything works.

The inanity isn’t limited to our protagonist, though. In a truly bizarre scene, James rightfully blows up at a family member after realizing that, during Shiva, everyone in the living room is watching a video of Dad’s wedding to his second wife—while Gail (wife #1) sits idly by. I was angry, too, mostly because I couldn’t fathom a roomful of ostensibly educated and well-to-do people letting that video play for more than five seconds. Mond slips in this moment, mistakenly ascribing James’ vulgar traits to the crowd he’s supposed to stand out from. It’s a cheap mousetrap whose sole purpose is to squeeze another “Look At Me” burst of “Capital A” acting out of Abbott.

In fairness to Abbott and Nixon, they are terrific in James White. But the performers toil pointlessly in service of a lousy script and artsy-fartsy directing choices that do nothing to match what they bring to their roles. This is the kind of movie where the camera lingers for minutes on end on an actor's face as he smokes or listens to earbuds in the middle of a blood-pumping dance floor—all in the hopes of wrenching significance or signs of inner struggle from a character who has nothing to offer; the kind of movie where you’re just waiting for a hotel mirror to get punched; the kind of movie where the protagonist begins almost every sentence with “I need,” “I want,” “You should,” or “Gimme”—and whose most generous act is telling his freshly deceased mother (SPOILER!) that she can pass on because he’ll be okay.

If you’re looking for an insightful film about family struggles and the intimately epic battles creative people wage with themselves every day (battles that involve actual work, by the way), watch Straight Out of Compton. Leave this overpriced loaf of Wonder Bread on the shelf.