Is it a rule that a major film festival has to have a disingenuous, painfully quirky coming-of-age film? This year’s Sundance Film Festival had one with Homework (re-titled to The Art of Getting By when it was released in theaters) and TIFF 2011 has at least one with Gus Van Sant’s Restless. A collection of meaningless quirks and affectations, Restless obnoxiously makes it way to the banal conclusion that we must accept death. It succeeds in that it will make you pray for your own demise if it means you don’t have to keep watching such an awful movie.
The opening shot of the film is of Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis Hopper) drawing a chalk outline of himself and it’s almost a warning: “This movie will be in love with its own ‘wit’ and be painfully obvious. Get out now.” Unfortunately for me, I must watch a movie from beginning to end and so I endured the following 90 minutes. The very next scene is Enoch going to funerals for people he doesn’t know. It doesn’t feel like an homage to Harold & Maude as much as outright theft. It’s all done to let us know that Enoch is morbid, doesn’t take death seriously, and could care less about the grieving of others. If Restless were a dark comedy, it could work, but the humor is as sharp as a gelatinous blob. Not satisfied with these quirks, the film throws on another by adding Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), Enoch’s special ghost pal who was a kamikaze pilot. These irritating affectations could perhaps be made palatable by an honest performance, but it appears that Mr. Hopper did not inherent his late father’s acting talent.
Enoch’s quirk pile is already overkill, but then he meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) at a funeral and their relationship is basically, “I’m strange, you’re strange, let’s be strange together and see if we can out-strange each other.” Neither one wants to face death since Annabel has only three months to live and Enoch refuses to deal with the death of his parents. Neither one goes to school so they’re free to spend the day studying nature books, hanging out with Hiroshi, and checking out the morgue. It’s understandable that the two of them don’t want to take death seriously, but since they’re avoiding honest emotions at every turn, the audience can’t take the characters seriously. This simple-minded, tiresome attitude can’t sustain itself so the climax of the second act is like the breaking of a dam, and we’re forced to endure an excruciatingly mawkish third act where Enoch throws tantrums about Annabel’s impending demise and everyone learns important lessons. “No more quirk!” Restless proclaims. “It’s time to get serious! Now here’s a heavy-handed statement from the ghost of a kamikaze pilot.” It’s as if you spent an hour eating stale candy and then you were forced to eat rotten produce.
The material is far beneath Van Sant’s talents and I couldn’t understand why he chose to direct the film when he does absolutely nothing to elevate it. There’s no creativity to the design, no attempt to pull back on the phony quirk and even phonier sentiment. And then Van Sant gave Danny Elfman a call and found a way to make the movie even worse. The standard-issue indie coming-of-age score is packed with lonely xylophones and acoustic guitars, and the soundtrack is just as bad with its second-rate Elliot Smith-like songs. My jaw dropped when there was another montage of Enoch and Annabel being quirky and the chorus of the background music was “It’s not your fault.”
Movies like Restless need to stop existing. They’re as bad as any vapid summer blockbuster. Both are poorly written, tend to have wooden performances, and will only appeal to those who will forgive any transgression no matter how odious. In place of explosions and bad CGI are quirks and obvious subtext. I’m not sure how Van Sant could be so oblivious as to make a movie this clichéd and tedious, but he ends the film on Nico’s “Fairest of the Seasons”, a song owned by The Royal Tenenbaums. It serves as a final reminder of what a clever, well-crafted comedy looks like and how Restless is anything but.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: