The Spectacular Now (A24, R)

The-Spectacular-Now 75The Spectacular Now is enjoyable enough, but not quite completely satisfying, either.

The-Spectacular-Now 500

The A.V. Club film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic pixie dream girl” years ago to describe a trend mostly found in American independent movies, such as Garden State, where a magical, beautiful, fun, uh, manic pixie dream girl exists only to complete the boring male lead, who has not much in the way of a personality outside of his connection to the MPDG. One of the best examples of this is Zooey Deschanel’s character in (500) Days of Summer, and The Spectacular Now, written by Summer scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, in some ways feels like a refutation of this trend that they helped to cement.

In it, the male lead Sutter (Miles Teller), a popular, funny, and easy-to-be-around high school senior, gets dumped by his lovely girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson, who I’m happy to be seeing in more and more movies lately), and soon after sort-of rebounds with Aimee (The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley), a nice girl whose yard he wakes up in after a bender. Sutter’s a bit of a drunk, especially for a high school kid; he always has a flask with him, if that gives you any idea, and the film was directed by James Ponsoldt, whose last film, Smashed, dealt with alcoholism a little more directly. It’s Aimee that feels like a response to the MPDG phenomenon, in that she is still portrayed as lovely but is really more of a boring, smart dream girl than a manic pixie dream girl; she’s very involved in school and invested in getting good grades, she gets up early for a paper route, she reads manga. She’s the stable one, and Sutter is the loose cannon.

Two things you ought to know about my taste here: 1) I tend to like good high school-set romantic comedies like this one, and 2) I tend to like the movies that have the much-maligned MPDG character (feel free to judge me all you want). And perhaps because of this preference of mine, The Spectacular Now didn’t entirely work for me. It’s not a bad film, but the problems that kept me at arm’s length from the story are related to the two above items. For one thing, one of the best, if not the best, of the high school romantic comedy genre is Cameron Crowe’s 1989 film Say Anything…, which to some extent The Spectacular Now seems to be pitched toward. The character Sutter seems to be written somewhat in the Lloyd Dobler vein, at least in terms of perceived likeability, and Miles Teller both looks and acts like a lesser version of a young John Cusack. Teller exudes confidence, but when it comes down to it only young John Cusack can play young John Cusack successfully.

Secondly, while if I’m being completely honest I would more likely fall for Woodley’s Aimee character in real life than I would Natalie Portman’s Sam or Zooey Deschanel’s Summer or any of the other ones (age-inappropriateness aside), the bottom line here is that the boring smart dream girl is less cinematic than the manic pixie dream girl; it’s easier to sell movies on big personalities, and while I love a movie with good, subtle characters, Aimee just isn’t quite written strongly enough to capture the viewer’s imagination. And besides all that, the boring, smart dream girl isn’t really a step up from the manic pixie dream girl—she still seems to only exist to fill a hole in the undeserving male lead’s life. Hell, even Cassidy, the ex-girlfriend, has the same problem. If you want a true subversion of the MPDG trope, you’re much better off with last year’s Ruby Sparks; The Spectacular Now is enjoyable enough, but not quite completely satisfying, either. | Pete Timmermann

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