Complaining that a Miranda July film is too quirky is like complaining that the Saw franchise is too violent. Anyone who ever dabbled in performance art from an early age has had that eccentric, overzealous, slightly creepy teacher: a dance instructor in a way-too-tight leotard, jiggling to New Age music, a drama teacher overemphasizing inflections of gibberish words—Miranda July is that performance artist.
Frizzy-haired, pale, and willowy, looking like a cross between Debra Winger and PJ Harvey at her most waifish, July is certainly an unabashed performer. She’s a bit in love with herself, prone to devoting whole scenes to her off-kilter role playing and choreography. In her last feature, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, her character—a performance artist, what range!—tape-recorded herself having whole conversations in a variety of timbres and personas. And in her latest, The Future (which opened July 29), she provides a squawking, lisping voice-over to a cat named Paw-Paw, an ailing critter trapped in a veterinary clinic cage and given to existential laments about its entrapment.
That annoying, scary, disembodied kitty—for each psychobabble cat monologue, the audience only gets to see a pair of man-made paws—is unfortunately a pivotal character in The Future, which is otherwise a much quieter, less baffling affair than Me and You. Paw-Paw, adopted by Sophie (July, playing a glum, talentless dance teacher) and her meek boyfriend, Jason (Hamish Linklater, who sports the same semi-afro as July) has 30 days to heal at the vet before its owners retrieve it. Then, they will have to care for it round the clock to ensure it lives for up to five years. At that time, this morbid couple decides, they will be 40 and their livelihood will be dead. “After 40, it’s like loose change,” Jason explains, in that you carry around all this useless stuff you don’t know what to do with. Hence, they need to live it up for the last month of their waning youth.
So what do they do? Nothing much, which is quite dispiriting, though it’s clearly the darkly comic conceit of the whole movie. The couple’s dynamic is, I imagine, the same that would exist between many empowered—if unhappy—artistic women and their very supportive, less ambitious men. One gets the feeling that the couple has always been dull; even at 25, it can be assumed, Jason was an unquestioning slave to his soulless telemarketing-from-home job while Sophie, the frustrated eccentric, danced around the house, attempting kooky projects. So naturally, when they go out in search of forced adventure, the results are, well, rather dull.
After both Jason and Sophie capriciously quit their jobs, Jason becomes a door-to-door salesman of trees. (If this movie were shot in New York City, where excruciatingly energetic do-gooders with clipboards regularly stop angry, hard-working commuters on every other sidewalk, shouting their causes, these scenes would be scabrously funny, but it’s set in California, where even the rude door-shutters are uber-polite and earthy). While Jason receives spiritual life lessons from a talkative, possibly senile customer, Sophie flirts—quirkily, of course—with Marshall, an older divorcee and father (David Warshofsky). Eventually—in a hilariously disturbing sequence—she gives in to disgusted lust, because—well presumably because Marshall tells her outright that he wants sex, something Jason would never do.
The funniest scene in The Future is early on, and it’s the one scene that seems rooted on this planet; it’s also one of the only scenes in wide-shot, not burrowing in on July and Linklater’s every pout and eyebrow flutter. As a couple of delighted children dance around a studio, July pathetically calls out dance moves (“Hop, hop”), barely faking the energy to lift her arms. Her character is a dreadful dancer, but like most failed performers, she’s angry that she’s been reduced to teaching children, and that anger is beautifully, subtly displayed in this scene—the children’s joy and utter unawareness of their teacher’s misery only boosts the hilarity.
Despite her hogging almost every scene in The Future, July clearly has a fondness for precocious children, whom she gives ample screen time. In “Me and You,” a seven year-old, influenced by his teen brother’s blooming sexuality, starts a childish instant messenger conversation—with July, who thinks he’s a sex chatter. Oddly, the conversation goes on unhinged. Like the aforementioned eccentric teachers, July puts children on the same plane as adults, which can be simultaneously cringe-inducing and coyly funny. (What is one to make, for example, of Marshall’s daughter blurting out, “I live with my dad because my mom is a free spirit”?)
In The Future, we want more of the authentic gloom of the lame dance class scene and infinitely less of the forced, metaphysical gloom July bombards most of the film with. Besides the screeching cat and the wise-beyond-her-years little girl (who at one point buries herself neck-deep in sand), we get a talking, advice-lending moon (a moon, for crying out loud, and what’s worse is that this twist happens just when the story is reaching an authentic emotional peak). There’s also a smothering shirt that comes to life and time-stopping tricks and—just stop me right here.
July should make films more than once every six years. She has talent for depicting low-flame relationships, and in particular the sorrow that can accompany unbridled lust. She gets a nice, reserved performance out of Linklater, and there are touches of bracing, bitter dialogue. But The Future is too weighed down by overarching metaphors.