The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (Sidney Hall)


The Hollywood version of a writer hard at work.

(2017) Drama (A24) Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Kyle Chandler, Janina Gavankar, Margaret Qualley, Nathan Lane, Blake Jenner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Drayer, Christine Brucato, Alex Karpovsky, Darren Pettie, David Alan Basche, John Trejo, Danny Cullen, Richard Beal, Ryan Willard, Cris Williams, Stephanie Purpuri. Directed by Shawn Christensen

 

From time to time, people who are at the top of their field, wrapped in success and fame, who simply walk away. It’s an irresistible story for the rest of us who wonder why those folks give up what the rest of us dream of. It is a sign of the prurient side of ourselves.

Sidney Hall (Lerman) is a gifted writer. Ask him; he’ll tell you so. We meet him in a high school writing class in which he has been tasked with writing an essay on the meaning of life. What he delivers is a treatise on his willingness to masturbate over a popular cheerleader and his feeling that he’s wasting his efforts on it. Needless to say, this doesn’t impress the tightly wound English teacher much.

Duane (Abdul-Mateen) knows that Sidney is just breaking the balls of the teacher who doesn’t understand him. He acts as kind of a mentor (and later a literary agent) to Sidney, delivering him to a prestigious publishing house and it’s acerbic editor (Lane). Sidney’s first novel, about the suicide of a high school student, becomes not only a bestseller but a cultural phenomenon and makes him wealthy and a bit of a rock star.

But Sidney’s personal life is a shambles. He left home, getting away from his shrill and controlling mother (Monaghan) and with his high school sweetheart Melody (Fanning) who later becomes his wife. But success breeds some not so pleasant side effects and Sidney’s marriage is crumbling as he becomes more and more self-absorbed. After losing the Pulitzer to another writer and devastated at the end of his marriage, Sidney abruptly disappears from public view.

A series of arsons in bookstores and libraries in which Sidney’s books alone are targeted for burning puts a detective (Chandler) on the trail of Sidney, who has at this point become something of a hobo, riding the rails with his dog Homer. But what motivated Sidney to walk away from everything? What is inside the mysterious box he dug up with his jock friend Brett Newport (Jenner)? Who is the mysterious detective chasing him and why is he so keen to find him? There are ghosts haunting Sidney Hall and perhaps that is why he wants to become one himself.

Director Shawn Christensen has enormous talent; it was clearly on display in his last movie Before I Disappear and there are moments where you can see it in this film. Unfortunately, this is much more of a mess than his last movie was. Christensen has three separate timelines interweaving with one another; Sidney’s last weeks in high school as his relationship with Melody begins and his relationship with Brett is explained. There’s also the apex of his career as a successful writer in his 20s in which his nascent ego has reached full flower, alienating him from just about everyone including his wife. Finally we see him as a lonely and just about psychotic wanderer, cloaked in self-loathing and with only a dog for company.

There are a lot of revelations in the film and to be honest some of them work, others are more on the ludicrous side. Lerman is a fine actor but he’s unconvincing here particularly in some crucial scenes which quite frankly undermines the whole she-bang. He also has almost no chemistry with Fanning whose character is so massively cliché that we’re banging our heads against the wall in frustration.

There are a lot of clichés on display here; the writer in his study, a glass of whiskey beside him, cigarette smoke curling up from his keyboard as he ponders the weight of his next few words. There is in fact a great deal of pretentiousness here, from the condescending dialogue to the portrait of the writer as a young snot. Although we find out near the end of the film that Sidney has suffered greatly at the hands of life, by that time it’s really too late to rescue the character from being someone we can’t stand to be around for very long – and we’re forced to hang out with him for nearly two hours.

Yes, the movie is much too long and feels padded out with gratuitous misery. We get it, Sidney’s life sucks and success isn’t all it’s cut out to be yadda yadda yadda. It doesn’t help that the leaping back and forth from timeline to timeline is done with leaden hands, leaving the audience frustrated yet again.

The sad thing is that there really is a good film somewhere in here. The cast is strong top to bottom and the performances are for the most part compelling; Nathan Lane brings some well-needed levity to the movie and Blake Jenner is surprisingly strong in his role as well. This just feels like a director trying to spread his wings but for whatever reason he plummets from his perch to make a great big ker-splat on the ground. I’m hoping this is just a misstep for Christensen and that we can still expect better things from him in the future. This isn’t going to be one of the highlights on his resume though.

The film is just hitting theaters after a month-long run on DirecTV. It is also still available there for subscribers to that satellite service. Expect it on a larger array of streaming services in the near future if you’re of a mind to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Nathan Lane is always a hoot. There are some really nice cinematic moments. The cast does pretty well in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The storytelling is disjointed and frustrating. The movie goes on way too long. The dialogue and plot are way too pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lerman plays Sidney as a high school student, in his 20s and lastly in his 30s; Lerman is actually 25 years old.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listen Up, Philip
FINAL RATING: 5/10
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