Like its rock star protagonist St. Vincent, The Nowhere Inn is at odds with itself, a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. On one hand, it’s a funny mockumentary that takes aim at rock documentaries and the old saying that fame is a bitch, but on the other, it’s a surreal meta-comedy that becomes too bizarre to make much sense — like a Lynchian nightmare in smeared lipstick.
Directed by Bill Benz, the hard-to-categorize film is a starring vehicle for Annie Clark, who’s better known as the feminist rock star St. Vincent. She co-wrote the movie with her real-life BFF Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia fame, who in The Nowhere Inn is hired to direct a behind-the-scenes St. Vincent documentary that we’re told upfront went horribly wrong and was never completed.
What was the point of this vanity project? Clark wants her fans to know who she really is, and since Brownstein is her best friend, the person who knows her better than anyone else — and someone with filmmaking experience — she’s deemed the right person to direct the documentary. Plus, she’ll make Annie feel more comfortable, knowing she’s in the trusted hands of a good pal.
The problem, of course, is that the fantastical St. Vincent proves to be a much more interesting subject than the quaint Annie Clark, who feebly insists, “we’re not all that different, her and I,” but soon agrees to ‘heighten’ things for the camera. She stops being so nice, and starts turning down photos — though rejecting a selfie-seeking fan only earns her more adulation as a woman who’s not afraid to “speak her truth.”
As Annie embraces her St. Vincent diva persona more and more, her ego goes through the roof — at one point she demands “more say in how other people will act” — and Brownstein realizes she’s beginning to lose her friend. Annie is aware of this, of course, so she gets Carrie a new assistant “she can unload her problems on,” including the fact that her father is dying of cancer, a subplot that doesn’t mesh particularly well with the rest of the proceedings. What works much better is a very game cameo by Dakota Johnson that comprises some of the funniest stuff in the film, as Brownstein is asked to shoot a sex scene between Clark and Johnson without the help of an on-set intimacy coordinator. Their trust eventually erodes, and Carrie quits her job in an effort to save what’s left of their friendship.
And that’s when things begin to take an absurdist turn…
I was really into The Nowhere Inn for its first half, as the other-worldly Clark makes for a compelling lead, and Brownstein makes a great “straight man” with her impeccable facial reactions that are akin to comic gold. But as the picture goes on, style starts to overwhelm the story, and you get the sense that the filmmakers had no idea where to take things, or how to end the movie.
The Sundance website calls The Nowhere Inn “a metacritique of fame” that “skewers celebrity and the creative process,” in that it forces the audience to ask what we really want from celebrities. Do we want them to be themselves, or do we want to them to play the part in which the media has cast them? To Annie, being entertaining is more important than it is to be authentic, but sacrificing her identity presents a problem of its own that may not be worth it.
Again, The Nowhere Inn starts strong following a hilarious opening scene in which Annie’s limo driver confesses he has no idea who she is. But halfway through the movie, the story begins to run out of steam, and when you leave yourself with nowhere to go, you end up going nowhere. This is a bizarre rabbit hole that St. Vincent fans may enjoy going down. All others should exercise caution before checking into this Inn.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below:
- The Assistant
- Bad Hair
- Boys State
- Crip Camp
- The Glorias
- Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
- The Last Thing He Wanted
- Lost Girls
- Miss Americana
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- The Night House
- Palm Springs
- Promising Young Woman
- Run Sweetheart Run
- Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made