Stories about alcoholism, if they’re being honest, have no heroes and no villains. There are protagonists, and occasionally antagonists, but the antagonists are peripheral, really. Authentic stories about alcoholism must ultimately focus around the protagonists and their loved ones. A protagonist of such a story can be a hero at heart, but he’s living with an addiction, so his actions are rarely heroic. They’re tainted, polluted. It’s the addiction that is the story’s villain, and it’s an inescapable enemy. It’s always there, with no safe haven to be found.
Addiction turns a hero into his own worst villain. An addiction narrative is a suspense thriller, where the lead character is in a life-or-death battle to prevent himself from destroying his own life, and the lives of his friends and family. Any other dramatic conflict, and there will be many, still remains strictly secondary in comparison. Every tale of addiction is different, but every one of them can have only two potential endings. The protagonist manages to stop, and that is no easy thing; or the protagonist dies. Period. Well, there may be a third option, of sorts. It’s possible the story ends with the protagonist still alive, and embracing his addiction, but understand that this is a kind of death. It’s a death of the spirit.
In the most generalized spoiler ever, let’s say that THE SPECTACULAR NOW, in its final moments, rejects the death of the spirit. This is a movie with life in it.
And please take no offense at the fact that the opening paragraphs emphasized the male conjugation — they were written that way because this particular addiction story happens to be about a “him.” Miles Teller plays the main character, Sutter Keely, an extroverted young man whose profound problems sneak up on the movie. By leading with talk of addiction, this review of THE SPECTACULAR NOW robs the film of some of its shock — the movie was sold as a lyrical, regional romance, which it is, but primarily it’s the story of an addict, which isn’t immediately apparent as things play at the outset. Sutter is outgoing and likable, with a stunning girlfriend (the luminous Brie Larson), a successful older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, endearing and deep), and a single mother who cares about him in her seemingly brusque way (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a rope-a-dope of a performance). Miles Teller has a kind of Cusack-meets-Belushi soulfulness and affability which keeps you on his side, even as Sutter’s screw-ups multiply as the story continues. His philosophy, as captured in the movie’s love-it-or-sneer-at-it title, is to live in the “now” as opposed to so many people who fixate on the pain of the past and the worries of the future. It’s an agreeable philosophy, but it’s flawed.
Sutter is a high school senior. He’s at that exact moment in life where people are most concerned with both their pasts and their futures at once. High school seniors are at an emotional precipice — with yearbooks and parties, they celebrate and reflect upon the end of childhood, while on their computers sit college applications, resumes, and job applications, the entry tickets to the chaotic carnival of adulthood. Sutter’s fixation on the “now” seems at first like a way of framing the present in a positive light, of appreciating the moment, but in fact it’s a dodge. Sutter wants to prolong a moment that by nature must pass.
It starts with the soda cup. The first clue to how substantial a problem Sutter has is the soda cup. He’s never without it, in the car, at his job — practiced and committed drinkers know what’s in the cup. He’s mixing booze in there, using the soda cup as a front to hide his crutch. The acceleration is rapid. After a whirlwind night of partying, Sutter wakes up one morning on a classmate’s lawn. She’s Aimee Finecky, a sweetheart to whom Sutter never gave a second thought at school. Next to Cassidy, his girlfriend, Aimee would be considered plain. There’s a warmth and a decency to Aimee, though, as there is to Sutter, when he’s conscious. Cassidy has been distancing herself (she sees the warning signs before he does) so Sutter starts spending more time with the attentive Aimee. If this were the John Hughes movie one may have had reason to expect, the lawn incident would be played for broad comedy, a meet-cute. Here it’s perfectly pitched, humorous but subtle, and the kids quickly move on from it. Aimee, an introvert by nature, isn’t used to spending time with Sutter, an indefatigable extrovert. She’s entranced. She’s co-dependent. She’s in trouble. By the time she or the audience realize that, we’re all already in too deep with Sutter.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW has an impact you don’t see coming, even if you do know what’s in that cup right away. Not to oversell such a delicate and genuine film, but it’s one of the best American movies to be released in 2013. Credit is due all around. Tim Tharp wrote the novel upon which the movie was based. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) DAYS OF SUMMER) wrote the adaptation for screen. James Ponsoldt (SMASHED) directed the movie. Jess Hall was the cinematographer. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as the two main characters, play their roles with uncommon maturity and sophistication. They are surrounded by an extremely talented supporting cast, including the aforementioned Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the strong women in Sutter’s life. Kyle Chandler appears later in the film, as a character who only existed as rumor beforehand, and he makes the maximum impact in a few scenes with a perfect, knowing performance. Comedian Bob Odenkirk, in a relatively small role as Sutter’s boss who recognizes a problem employee and tries to hang onto him as long as possible, is positively heart-breaking. This is a movie where Bob Odenkirk, a monster talent who’s only ever made me laugh, broke my heart. Wow. This is a special kind of movie.
Making a good movie is a collaborative effort, done by small armies of craftsmen who have varying degrees of personal investment in the art. Whether all were deeply moved to make it or only some, THE SPECTACULAR NOW feels eminently personal. It’s told with quiet, relaxed authority. There is a keenly-observed realness going on, just as there was in James Ponsoldt’s previous film, 2012’s SMASHED, and in his debut feature, 2006’s OFF THE BLACK. Those films, though, were about young adults and middle-aged people grappling with addiction. As terrific an achievement as SMASHED in particular was, Ponsoldt has found more unique, tender material in THE SPECTACULAR NOW. The novelty of this plot is that it’s been de-aged. Movies about drunks are almost always cast with characters gone to seed, nearing the ends of their lives rather than finding them at the very start. There’s still plenty of hope for Sutter. He caught this thing early. Millions have been less fortunate. THE SPECTACULAR NOW ends on a question mark. Where will Sutter end up? Nothing is certain. But there’s reason to hope. This movie gives you hope.
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