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Generation Um... (2012)
A deliberately-paced, thought-provoking drama
John (Keanu Reeves) just celebrated his 40th birthday. He lives in a slummy NYC apartment with his obese cat and 20ish-year-old cousin Rick (Jonny Orsini). He spends time with Mia (Adelaide Clemens) and Violet (Bojana Novakovic), a pair of hard-partying ladies in their early 20s. He avoids pretty much everyone else, including his fretting mother tries to get in touch to wish him a happy birthday. John wanders the city drinking coffee in the day and booze at night. He has a million-mile stare and doesn't talk much. New York is expensive and he relies on a variety of means to pay the bills, some of which are probably illegal. He mopes because he doesn't know how to break the mind-numbingly repetitive cycle. Hell, not even the occasional blowjob in the local pub's bog can put a smile on his face, for fuck's sake! John drags his feet around the city and mills about his bedroom until we get to the first turning point, about 30 minutes in, when he follows a crowd of balloon-toting weirdos to a park where they perform a Country Western cowboy hoola-hoop dance
thing. Some idiot sets his camera on the ground and turns his back so John, being an opportunist, gets himself a new video camera after narrowly escaping the Cowboy mob in the movie's one and only action sequence.
John proceeds to record squirrels in the park before turning the camera first on himself and then on introverted Mia and bratty Violet, roommates and BFFs since meeting a few months before. They prance around in their underwear and stare deeply into mirrors as though that might conjure up answers to some of the universe's deeper secrets. The girls are really into sex, drugs and rock and roll. With the camera rolling, John shadows them as they take turns telling stories that may or may not be true. All the sudden stars of their own reality TV show, they reveal details of their lives with an un-bashfulness that can only have come from learning valuable life lessons from the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo instead of mindful parents. John probably fancies himself as a protector and father figure (which explains his blasé reaction to the bj; he accepts it more as a professional courtesy than giving into carnal desires.) The characters seem to exist by floating from one moment to another, stuck in a big swirl of bland repetition, and the audience is tugged along for the ride. John doesn't seem too interested in breaking free. If this was rehab, he'd be somewhere between recognizing he has a problem and dwelling on potential ways to break the cycle, but still miles away from taking any meaningful action.
John, Mia and Violet are souls adrift on a sea of self-loathing. They love and need each other despite getting to this point from vastly different avenues. Although they seem to enjoy the particular sway, none of them are keen to rock the boat and I don't get the sense that any of them are particularly afraid of drowning, either. It's a fragile balance, and one which requires a lot of trust.
A few small surprises arise as the histories and relationships are revealed, and there is even a twist ending of sorts. It's quite a bit lower on the whoa! scale than, say, if John revealed he could see dead people, but the impact on the story is no less important. What the final 5 minutes does is give new context to everything we've seen. What felt like a loose, rambling cautionary tale tightens in a heartbeat and you realize everything exists for a reason as it builds to the only logical conclusion. The best endings are those which are both surprising and completely obvious, and the finale here was an expertly executed maneuver which I fear the subtlety and beauty of was lost on the critics who dismissed the movie as aimless or boring.
Mann's experiments with blocking put the focus less on the characters and more on the details of their surroundings -- in most cases, those spaces tell us more than any movement or dialogue could. The editing is nicely done with humorous moments coming on the back-end of shots that are deliberately held for a half-beat too long. The movie isn't quite linear but it's not quite nonlinear, either. Mann manages to subtly dislodge the audience from time and space, and if you feel a bit lost well then welcome to the club, brother. It isn't a stretch to think the audience should have been given a Hello My Name Is sticker upon arrival.
Reeves has played similarly unmotivated characters in the past but not to this degree and it's his nuanced performance which holds the film together. Bojana and Adelaide are promising young talents who buy into their roles and give wonderful and completely unglamorous performances. As with the characters they embody, there is a lot of trust going on here, and it pays off.
At times we are treated to well-lit sets, deliberately composed shots, and nice music selections. Other times the camera shakes like a Bourne movie on cheap speed, and the dialogue comes across like first year university students who've just discovered Nietzsche. But what I do know is I'm compelled to watch the movie again, and I'm going to tell my film-loving friends to check it out.