Friday, January 4, 2013

Not Fade Away: Only if we're unlucky

Not Fade Away (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, considerable drug use, sexual candor and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.4.13

Viewers born after 1965, or thereabouts, won’t have the faintest idea what writer/director David Chase is trying to express in this film.

Expecting yet another generation gap-inspired lecture, Douglas (John Magaro, right)
is surprised when his father (James Gandolfini) genuinely opens up to him. Enjoy this
scene, as it's the only truly impressive display of acting, writing and directing in an
otherwise inane and deadly dull drama.
Heck, I lived through this transitional period just like he did, and I barely followed this storyline.

Chase apparently assumes that the 1960s’ musical revolution, and all it involved, are somehow grafted into the brain cells of every American, regardless of age. Granted, the obvious high points have become (in)famous: the long hair, the mod clothes, the casual sex and even more casual drug use, the ever-widening generation gap made worse by mounting contempt for the violent quagmire in Vietnam.

But these are mere backdrop elements, against which the main characters in Chase’s Not Fade Away play out their restless angst ... and that’s where this film falls apart.

We’ve absolutely no sense of the young people at the heart of this story: no concept of what they’re thinking from one moment to the next, or why some of them are so rude and self-centered, or why others are self-destructive. We get no back-stories, no insightful clues, no confessional moments of lucidity. These characters speak in non-sequiturs — when they speak at all — and free-associate stray thoughts with snarky contempt, as if daring us to make sense of anything.

Chase apparently expects us to read everybody’s mind, but that’s impossible; his stars haven’t the acting chops to get anywhere near the level of introspective clarity we so desperately need. And, as if aware of this problem, Chase and cinematographer Eigil Bryld rely tediously, tiresomely on sulky, coldly aloof close-ups, as if searching for significance in the pores of each face.

Where is the fire, the acting gusto, that Chase brought to his work on HBO’s The Sopranos?

And slow? Oh, goodness; trends could rise and fall during the time it takes this morose, 112-minute film to drag to a conclusion.

The topper is an elliptical “conclusion” that arrives several scenes after Chase blows an opportunity to stop at a much more logical moment. Like several other recent films, Chase hasn’t the slightest idea when to stop, and instead gives us several false endings before settling on the least of the bunch.

I have learned, through long experience, to be wary of intimate projects that are deeply personal to filmmakers; in most cases, they can’t get out of their own way. The results are disappointing at best, mawkish self-indulgent at worst. Not Fade Away most often leans toward the latter.

Chase has explained, during numerous recent interviews, that the 1960s represented a tipping point in his younger life: the galvanic moment when, following the Beatles’ eruption on the American scene, he (to quote liner notes) “served time as a drummer in an obscure New Jersey band with bigger dreams than accomplishments.” Chase had the wisdom to abandon this tantalizing fantasy for a career in film, although he frequently has acknowledged these roots with a talent for marrying images with iconic pop and rock anthems.

And, indeed, Chase layers this film with brilliantly employed songs of the era; I’ll give him credit for establishing a solid sense of time and place. Too bad he didn’t cast his film with equal care, or give his characters any truly meaningful dialogue.

We meet the brooding, fringe-dwelling Douglas (John Magaro) during his senior year in high school, as he quietly envies the nascent band assembled by über-popular guitarist Eugene (Jack Huston). Truth be told, Douglas knows the blues — and music in general — far better than his peers, and is becoming reasonably adept on drums, but nobody cares.

Worse yet, girls have eyes only for Eugene, particularly the lovely but pouty Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote).

Douglas’ working-class New Jersey home life is no better. His father, Pat (James Gandolfini), smolders like a pot set on perpetual simmer, his temper quick to flare over anything that crosses his conservative, reflexively racist radar. Douglas’ cranky, eternally unhappy mother, Antoinette (Molly Price), worries about money and chafes at how her family’s modest means pale when compared to other relations. She’s more caricature than character.

Younger sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) is an unexpected ray of sunshine: both because Evelyn is spunky enough, and smart enough, to rise above her parents’ often toxic applications of tough love, and because Guzulescu herself is effervescent, her wide eyes and unabashed devotion to her brother winning our hearts.

Douglas gets his shot in Eugene’s band when the regular drummer winds up in the army. (Pete Best, anyone?) Now in a position to share his artistic respect for a music form — blues-tinged rock — that evolves by the day, Douglas finds a kindred spirit in bandmate Wells (Will Brill), a condescending fellow with a extremely high opinion of himself ... and an apparent belief that everybody else should rise to his standards.

Summer passes; Douglas enters college as a short-haired freshman who pleases his father with tentative thoughts about joining the ROTC program. He returns home for Thanksgiving break with long, frizzy hair and the early stages of a bohemian, peacenik attitude that’ll only grow more strident and intolerant with time.

We’re obviously intended to like Douglas, and sympathize with him, but that’s impossible; he is, throughout this entire film, an unpleasant, self-centered jerk.

He then further damages the family dynamic by dropping out of school, choosing instead to focus on the band. Oddly, despite the way Pat has been portrayed up to this point, he doesn’t toss his belligerent, ungrateful lout of a son out of the house; instead, Pat simply ... simmers.

Unfortunately, tensions are equally high within the band — now called the Twylight Zones — because Douglas recognizes that he has a far better voice than Eugene, who until now has made himself lead singer. Douglas also knows that they cannot make a name by merely covering existing pop hits, as both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did, early in their careers; artistic recognition comes only with original material.

But here, too, Eugene prefers the path he knows.

Elsewhere, Grace’s older sister Joy (Dominique McElligott) has tuned in, turned on and dropped out big time. Joy seems ordinary enough during our fleeting glimpse of her in the film’s high school prologue, but by the time Douglas shares a weirdly uncomfortable moment with her in the Dietz attic, the girl is full-blown bonkers. We’re left to assume the influence of LSD or some similar mind-altering substance, but Chase never clarifies this issue, just as he doesn’t explain much else.

Tempers flare; passions ignite; the band changes its name to TBD. Raw talent and a mildly Dylanesque stage presence turn Douglas into the group’s focus. He gets the girl, when Grace insists that she “believes in him.” Or maybe he doesn’t get her; this couple’s erratic behavior — and particularly Grace’s capricious nature — defy resolution.

Chase lards his script with tragedy. One character gets late-stage cancer: a certain death sentence. Another is confined to a local loony bin. Another smashes into a tree during a motorcycle mishap. Do we care? Not really; each is a fleeting misfortune, unsupported by a cast incapable of bringing emotional depth to these incidents.

One scene stands out: indeed, sparkles like a jewel in a bed of murk. Wanting to have a serious father/son chat, Pat takes Douglas out for a restaurant dinner. Gandolfini owns this moment, as the taciturn Pat opens up, choosing to share a confidence that he never should have revealed, but of course it’s precisely the sort of thing such a man would do. Magaro, as well, sheds most of his character’s aloof hostility.

It’s a brilliant moment, superbly acted and scripted, with both men showing their vulnerable sides and trying to connect. Alas, as happens in real life, they still talk past each other, even as they desperately yearn for connection.

If Chase had assembled the rest of his film with similar care, he’d have a memorable classic. Instead, this tedious vanity endeavor is a dull, dreary slog that flops in the shadow of far better rock ’n’ roll valentines such as American Graffiti, Almost Famous and That Thing You Do.

All of which I now need to watch again, to remove the taste of this misfire.

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