Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are such a naturally charming on-screen couple that it takes quite awhile to realize the movie they’re in, “The Spectacular Now,” isn’t very good.
Directed by James Ponsoldt (who debuted with the far more focused and wrenching “Smashed” last summer) and adapted from a Tim Tharp novel by writers/co-producers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who also wrote and produced the wittier but far more gimmicky and cloying “500 Days of Summer”), “The Spectacular Now” is an amalgam of several superior romantic teen films. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the two principal films being mirrored are Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything” (about a slacker who enchants a straight-laced valedictorian) and John Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” (in which a popular rich boy asks a less popular poor girl to the prom, then worries about the social consequences).
Both of these movies had their cornball, self-serious moments, but their creators zeroed in with crack precision on the pain and confusion specifically experienced during adolescence. A man in his late twenties, for instance, might not feel so unwaveringly that a beautiful woman he hardly knows is his soulmate, but at seventeen, one simple exchange of smiles or doe-eyed glances with such a girl can render a boy totally unable to focus on anything else.
Unfortunately, while their heart is certainly in the right place, the makers of “The Spectacular Now” have only come up with scattered episodes that ring true; as a whole, nothing in the film quite connects. More problematically, though the film is seemingly about a teenage boy and girl who help each other grow, it ends up pushing the girl’s story deep into the background, sucking the life out of her character.
Sutter (Teller, who was also excellent as the guilt-wracked hit-and-run driver in “Rabbit Hole”) is your classic good-natured high-school cut-up: gawky and silly, but tall and lanky and exuberant enough to attract plenty of women. One of them (Brie Larson) breaks up with him at the start of the film, claiming that she needs someone with direction now that they’re nearing graduation (she ends up dating an emphatically humorless athlete, who, in the least convincing scene, turns to Sutter for advice on how to loosen up). Sutter means well, but he drinks too much (even at his lowly job as a thrift store cashier), and he has no future plans.
One night after a bender, he ends up collapsing on the lawn of his classmate Aimee (Woodley, who played the surly older daughter to perfection in “The Descendants”). She knows him by reputation; the reclusive, somewhat nerdy (but button-cute) Aimee, however, hasn’t ever caught Sutter’s eye. No matter: soon he’s helping her out on her paper route job, which her angry, overbearing single mother depends on for rent. She helps him with geometry and he introduces her to the inhibition-lifting thrills of gin sipped from a flask. They bond over shared parental woes; her dad died, his dad is long-absent and he’s forbidden from contacting him by his bitter, workaholic mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh in an uncharacteristically one-note performance). They make a cutesy pact to stand up to their individual mothers. In Aimee’s case, she wants permission to attend (with her own savings) a prestigious, unnamed college in Pennsylvania, while Sutter just wants to reunite with his dad.
Several of the courting scenes ring memorably true. One of them contrasts the zealous promises one lover makes to another on a particularly drunken night with the day-after regret at those promises. When Sutter gives Aimee her own flask as a pre-prom present, it’s as funny as it is poignant; her mixture of delight and disappointment at the gift gives the film its heartiest laugh. And most of the sequence wherein Sutter and Aimee visit his much-maligned father (Kyle Chandler) is effectively devastating.
The problem is that for the most part the film’s set-ups are more engrossing than the outcome. Aimee, with her love of feminist comic books and her outcast status, is a potentially rich character, and the film would ultimately have been more interesting if it focused on her metamorphosis, her blossoming into adulthood. Instead, the focal point of Aimee’s character is to be a catalyst for Sutter’s development. And on that level, she is simply too perfect, especially given her broken-home surroundings. She’s preternaturally sweet, never more than just sad at Sutter’s tentative approach to their relationship (he often flirts with his ex right in front of her, even at the prom) and unrealistically quick to forgive his worse mistakes. She isn’t even prude or boring as a lot of goody-two-shoes girls might be; she lets Sutter turn her on to booze, and she’s happy to lose her virginity to him. She is, in short, a male fantasy of a perfect girlfriend, and that makes her character a cipher.
Meanwhile, while “The Spectacular Now” generates many quirky laughs throughout, it is naggingly free of tension. Aimee takes her studies more seriously than Sutter, and she’s given one sulky, disapproving friend, who’s wary of Sutter’s commitment-phobic demeanor. But other than that, we have no sense as to why these two characters are on opposite sides of the tracks (they both seem to be lower middle-class), or why Sutter would suffer socially from dating her (it doesn’t take long for his friends to welcome her into their flock). Instead, the film falls back on that tired teen angst film device in which a headstrong woman boosts the self-esteem of an insecure man-child, which seems a cop out.
What’s more, since Sutter is presented at the outset as being well-liked, his “nobody loves me” breakdown later on feels forced. And why is all the attention on him? He gets a teary-eyed reconciliation scene with his mother, even a self-discovery monologue (which, surprise, surprise, becomes his trite college essay). Meanwhile, all of Aimee’s moments of self-discovery are left off-screen, explained after-the-fact; her blossoming seems too easily-won. A better movie would have found time to put both Aimee and Sutter in the spotlight.