There's a kind of schizophrenia to the filmography of Gus Van Sant, which veers wildly from modestly conventional crowd-pleasers like Good Will Hunting and Milk to abstract, experimental fare like Gerry and Elephant. His patterns are somewhat similar to Soderbergh's--right down to the fact that the pictures he make "for them" tend, contrary to expectation, to be of a higher quality than those he makes "for me" (though at his worst, Soderbergh never turned out a slag heap as unwatchable as Last Days). His latest film, Restless, feels like a conscious effort to meld the two halves of his directorial persona, though the result is a picture that should please absolutely no one.
This is not one of those films that starts well and degenerates; no, we know from pretty much the opening frames, which are immediately just a little bit too precious. We are introduced to the improbably-named Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper) as he lays on the concrete, in his omnipresent black suit, drawing a chalk outline around himself. Yes, this junior Harold is obsessed with death (though, unlike Hal Ashby, Van Sant makes the fatal mistake of finding this fetish charming); he spends his spare time at funerals and has an imaginary friend who he claims to be a Japanese kamikaze pilot. And he lives with his aunt (Jane Adams) because, of course, his parents are dead.
At one of his funeral outings, he meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a charming little pixie who works at the cancer ward where the deceased spent his final days. Of course, it turns out she doesn't; she's actually sick herself, inflicted with a fatal case of Ali McGraw's Disease (Ebert: "Movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches"). She has about three months to live, so Enoch makes her the following offer: "I mean, I know a lot about it or whatever, so I could help you with stuff." I made sure I got that Wildean bon mot down verbatim, because it's utterly indicative of screenwriter Jason Lew's dialogue--it's all either flat, dull chit-chat or twee pitter-patter. ("Are you okay?" "Sort of." That kind of thing.) This is Lew's first produced screenplay. I do not predict great things for him.
Van Sant is usually a sure hand with actors, but his faculties have escaped him this time around. Wasikowska, who so effortlessly projected stubborn smarts in The Kids Are All Right, appears to have been instructed to just smile beatifically all the time; her short hairdo (which renders her a dead ringer for another famous Mia, circa Rosemary's Baby) is more interesting than her performance. Hopper was apparently given similar instructions, to simply look sullen all the time, at least until the film turns into a teenage angst-fest in the third act. He's a good-looking kid, and he pouts well, but when the occasion arises to actually "act," he's pretty dreadful. Supporting players are wasted; I believe the great Ms. Adams has exactly two, short dialogue scenes. Maybe three. Not enough, is the point.
Restless has the misfortune to enter the marketplace at around the same time as 50/50, a genuinely wonderful movie about a potentially fatal illness which causes this one to look even more phony, even more emotionally and intellectually bankrupt, in comparison. Restless is every intolerable thing which 50/50 distinguished itself by not being--it's maudlin, dishonest, nakedly manipulative, and lazy. It's the kind of movie where every throwaway line or gesture is revisited at the film's end, to warm our hearts with its tragic significance, etc.; it's the kind of movie where we spend the back half just waiting for the sick girl to die, and we don't feel bad about it, because everyone in the movie is a construct to whom we have nothing resembling an emotional connection or interest. There is tremendous talent put to no good use here--Harris Savides's photography is gorgeous (as usual), Danny Elfman's Hunting-tinged score is warm and inviting, and there are even a couple of modestly clever scenes. Nearly everyone involved seems capable of doing good work, and their hearts may even have been in the right place. It's not so much that Restless is an offensive movie. It's just an insufferable one.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.