In a small British seaside town, in no particular time period—though “Crocodile Dundee” is playing at the local theater—a never-smiling, messy-haired teenager named Oliver (Craig Roberts) obsesses over his sullen classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), his joyless parents (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) and, most notably, himself. As in “Harold and Maude,” “Rushmore,” and countless other films about angst-ridden, precocious youths, this protagonist is wise beyond his years, a bookworm—yes, he reads the dictionary—a lover of obscure French music, an avid diarist. He’s also obnoxiously self-aware, prone to quaintly maudlin practices like picturing his own funeral and gauging his parents’ “intimacy level” by the nighttime setting on their bedroom’s dimmer.
The central joke of “Submarine,” the new film directed and adapted for the screen—from Joe Dunthorne’s novel—by Richard Ayoade, is that this pretentious brat lives entirely in his own head, thinking himself smarter than everyone else but, of course, remaining a babe in geezer’s clothing. Ayoade, star of the beloved British sitcom “The IT Crowd,” lends much deadpan wit to “Submarine,” and the strong cast bubbles with nervous, mumbling energy. But this growing pains saga, and the unrelentingly self-conscious remove with which it is told, is cloyingly familiar. In the age of asinine cheerleader flicks and gross-out teen comedies, it’s always refreshing to see an adolescent comedy with a touch of class. But why can’t smart, literary filmmakers ever write about kids that smile, that don’t talk in outmoded slang, that listen to music from the past ten years? “Submarine” is, in the end, little more than a French New Wave knock-off.
The audience pretty much learns everything they need to know about Oliver in the film’s first ten minutes, as he delivers a rapid, toneless monologue on his own brilliance. He always pictures a film crew following him around, he explains, and for that reason, he’s experimented with different fashions, music tastes, philosophies. Despite these pretentions, though, Oliver is more likable and sensitive than that snotty Jason Schwartzman character in “Rushmore.” He associates with unpopular kids, like the fat girl that, to his chagrin, he discovers his love interest Jordana picking on. (“I disapprove of bullying,” he says in voice-over. “Jordana seems to approve of it in small doses. I must learn to adapt.”)
Through a set of circumstances too convoluted to get into, Oliver winds up tentatively dating Jordana. Ayoade and director of photography Erik Wilson lend these timid courtship scenes a knowingly exaggerated look that enhances the somewhat smug screenplay. When Oliver notices Jordana’s eczema, for instance, the camera zooms in ferociously on her flaky hands. Sparks shoot dizzyingly over the frame upon the couple’s first kiss. And there are clever details thrown in to emphasize Oliver’s ineptitude with women; when he and Jordana finally get a night to themselves, he buys box wine, leads off a toast with “To us and a night of loovmakin’,” and adorns his bedroom with birthday party balloons. Naturally, Jordana, looking like a younger, dowdier Minnie Driver, is thoroughly unimpressed.
The bulk of the humor, as well as the tenderness, in “Submarine” is derived from Oliver’s lack of connection with Jordana, but as a result, their relationship is hard to get involved in. Ayoade keeps staging the same wince-inducing situation—Oliver babbles idiotically (“I thought it would be nice to have some mutual interests now that we’ve had sex, besides setting things on fire,” he says, upon lending her “The Catcher in the Rye”) and Jordana sulks. Paige and Roberts are attractive, solid performers, but it’s depressing, after awhile, to watch the hapless Oliver flounder, and it’s hard to grasp his infatuation with such a cold fish. (Jordana’s brusque dismissal of him towards the film’s end seems unduly harsh).
There’s an undeveloped, equally morose subplot about Oliver thwarting his mother’s affair with a mulleted New Age guru (the underused Paddy Considine). And the gloomy soundtrack (performed entirely by the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner) only serves to drive “Submarine” further into annoying self-importance.
Fortunately, “Submarine” is frequently revived from its torpor by Taylor and Hawkins, superbly playing against type as Oliver’s numb parents. Hawkins, who was almost too convincing as a constantly chirping nutjob in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” is deliciously snarky here, playfully picking on her son (“Stop joking,” is her first response to Oliver’s announcement that he has a girlfriend—and then she awkwardly flashes the thumbs-up sign). Taylor, looking like Rip Van Winkle in a torso-length beard, is the polar opposite of his apoplectic turn in “Shine.” He’s a groggy delight, only fully present in one standout scene, where he gives his son a mix tape of both love and breakup songs; “Passion rarely lasts, my friend,” he says ruefully. It’s a shame that “Submarine,” despite its several hilarious moments, is also generally lacking passion.