I Hope You Know That This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record: “The Spectacular Now”

I Hope You Know That This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record: “The Spectacular Now” August 12, 2013

Man, I was so close to loving this movie. Basically it’s a John Hughes movie where you replace the romantic lead with a barely-functional alcoholic, which to no one’s surprise turns out to be the way to make me finally love a John Hughes movie. I really, genuinely adored a lot of this and found it funny, sweet, and poignant, with at least some degree of wisdom.

Most of the audience I saw it with (at Bethesda Row Cinema; it’s also at E St) did not agree, and to be honest, they were right too. The bad parts of this movie are really pretty bad. Most of the characters beyond the two leads are sketchy caricatures, but, more importantly, the script is super heavy-handed in coming up with cheesy explanations for its hero’s personal chaos. He views his parents’ divorce as a matter of hero-dad, villain-mom, which is the kind of thing I think actual children of divorce have firmly shaken out of their heads by the time they’re in high school, and in a hugely predictable plot twist, his dad is actually a loser who doesn’t come visit because he doesn’t care enough to, whereas his mom loves him a lot. We know that she loves him because they have an awful cheese-slab conversation about how he thinks nobody loves him and that’s why he’s a mess. It’s not presented as “man, drunk people are maudlin” but as, “at last he realizes the truth and can begin to heal!”, and it’s just so, so brutal about spelling everything out. Plus, the cheese quotient increases as the movie goes on, which is always a bad slope. And the college-application-essay framing device requires the main character to be bizarrely stupid at the end: Literally nobody thinks you can turn in a college application after high-school graduation, come on.

That said, the two leads are just wonderful. Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) and Sutter Kiely (Miles Teller) are both memorable characters, and although she is more lightly-sketched than he is, which I don’t love, she gets some surprisingly realistic character points, like the fact that she genuinely gets pretty into drinking alongside him and the movie doesn’t judge that. The actors are great, very tender. I obviously agreed with the moral that a future is better than a moment (or, really, a future is a string of moments linked together by relationship to others) and I also really liked the thing Sutter ends up saying in his application essay, even though the device itself was silly. I like the slow reveal of the depths of Sutter’s drinking problem, and the various loud scenes of fun and quiet little scenes of resignation which accompanied it: The line, “Well, you’ve got me there, Don,” is just heartbreaking. Teller completely sells both the fun and the after-fun.

I don’t know–if what I’ve said so far makes it sound like something you’d like, you should see it. If divorce cliches bother you then there are parts of this movie you will really hate, and IMO the insistence that there’s an “explanation” for Sutter’s problem is also very AfterSchool Special. That said, a good 60% of this movie is fresh and powerful and I loved that part, so I can put up with the rest.

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