In the opening sequence of Mark Pellington's nihilistic drama I Melt With You, the screen is filled with phrases of despair, in big block letters: "I AM A MAN", "I AM AFRAID," "I AM DIVORCED," "I CAN'T GET HARD," "I LOVE YOU," and so on, and so on, until the title is rendered in similar fashion. Subtle, eh? What follows is a movie not so much bad (and certainly not as bad as its Sundance buzz would suggest) as it is overcooked. There is boldness in its ambition, and truth in its implications, but it's all slathered in a thick coat of shouting and preening.
Pellington begins with the four-day birthday baccanal for Tim (Christian McKay), an annual event, a "reunion" per the birthday boy. He's still getting over the traumatic death of his wife a few years since; his three best friends from college all arrive with their own glitches, carrying their own specific baggage. Richard (Thomas Jane) is a failed novelist turned English teacher, and a womanizer; "When they really get to see me, they don't like what they see," he insists, though Tim insists, "You make sure of that." Jonathan (Rob Lowe) has watched his medical practice turn into a prescriptions-for-pay outfit, and barely gets to see his son, who calls his stepfather "daddy." Ron (Jeremy Piven), the wealthy family man, seems the most together of the bunch, but he's made some sketchy decisions that are coming back to haunt him.
The film's first half sets it up as either a Very Bad Things-style guy weekend gone wrong, or a men-behaving-badly drama in the tradition of Neil LaBute (one of the dozens of credited producers). But as we watch these four 44-year-olds snort, smoke, drink, and say "pussy," we don't really buy it; it feels like play-acting, like good boys trying to be bad. (This holds particularly true of Lowe, who sells his despair but not his "edge.") And there's an awful lot of padding in that first hour, snazzy show-off montages and contemplative musical interludes that tip, too heavily, at Pellington's background in the world of music videos.
Then the film takes a surprising turn, one which I won't divulge here. Suffice it to say that it leans darker than expected, and doesn't flinch at where it must go to preserve anything resembling honesty. But even when engaging in matters of life and death, the film suffers from its lack of economy, both in terms of style and dialogue; a long (long) scene dealing with the fallout of that turning event drags on twice as long as it should, an endless slog of characters yelling at each other with maddening repetitiveness.
In those early scenes, Pellington does his level best to give the picture the manic, untethered energy of the participants--he does all he can (POV shots, blown-out cinematography, strange angles, slow-motion, loud music, etc.) to make it a visceral experience. And he frequently gets the mood right; a party scene is crashed by a group of sexy younger folks, and the filmmaker nails the precise way that a night like that can go sour, weird, or ugly, sometimes all at once.
But stylistically, Pellington can't get out of his own way. There's real weight and substance to some of these moments: the withdrawn way the men are regarded by their fishing boat captain (the great Tom Bower), how Richard shows himself to be entirely ill-eqiupped to deal with Ron's confession of his troubles. In its quiet, the film finds some truth--but even then, Pellington can't curb his "lookie-me" filmmaking inclinations. There is stock footage, employed with a proposterousness that approaches Ed Wood levels. There are comically obvious music choices (U2's "Out of Control" and Melle Mel's "White Lines" among the most egregious). And there is the patently ridiculous closing sequence, which smothers any tension or discomfort by throwing in, swear to God, a car chase.
The performances are mixed--McKay (so good in Me and Orson Welles) is acting his ass off here, and Piven's turn has real weight and depth, but Lowe's limitations have been noted, and Jane badly needed someone to sit on him. I Melt With You has things to say, certainly, about growing old, becoming a man, and coping (or declining to cope) with how we disappoint ourselves. But it says them all at the same volume, with the same velocity, and it says them all over and over and over again.