(2017) Drama (Superlative) John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Rosalyn R. Ross, Erin Allegretti, Jim Dougherty, Lindsey Shope, Shani Salyers Stiles, William Willet, Reen Vogel, Wynn Reichert, Alphaeus Green Jr., Caitlin Ewald. Directed by Kogonada
There are times in our lives when we are in a place that we don’t want to be; we are there because we are obligated to be there. Upon reflection however it generally turns out that where we are is exactly where we are supposed to be. Realizing it at the time is pretty much always another matter.
Jin (Cho) finds himself in Columbus, Indiana. Not because he has any great desire to be there but because his father, a scholar on architecture, was to deliver a lecture there but collapsed and went into a coma. Jin and his father have barely spoken for a long time but Jin is the only blood relative his father has, so he goes at the behest of his dad’s protégé Eleanor (Posey) whom not uncoincidentally he had a crush on as a teen.
Casey (Richardson) has lived in Columbus all her life. She’s whip-smart and has a passion for architecture, so living in Columbus is a great thing for her – the town is known for its striking modernist architecture designed by some of the greatest architects in history – I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and John Carl Warnecke among them – and while volunteering at the local library also gives tours of the city’s landmarks. She has had offers to go to college (she just graduated high school) but has quietly turned them down, preferring to stay at home and take care of her recovering drug addict mother (Forbes) who is in a fragile emotional state and probably wouldn’t be able to care for herself without Casey.
Jin and Casey meet and one would think initially that they wouldn’t hit it off much; Jin doesn’t care much for architecture, a field which essentially took his workaholic father away from him and Casey is nuts about it but hit it off they do. At first Casey seems content to give her tour guide opinions of the buildings that catch Jin’s eye but as Jin gently digs she begins to open up to him. Pretty sure, he’s opening up to her right back.
That’s really all the plot there is to this movie. Normally I don’t mind a movie that is all middle without a beginning or an end; I love movies that grasp the ebb and flow of life. That’s not really the case here. First time director Kogonada has a brilliant visual sense and a real eye for shot composition, but utilizes it to excess here. I do appreciate his use of water and rain as a motif and his use of geometric shapes amid natural environments but after awhile one becomes dulled to the images. We are made aware at nearly every moment that each scene is an artificial setting, not an organic function of the scene. For example, there’s a scene in a hotel room where Jin and Eleanor are talking about his feelings for her growing up; the entire scene is shot viewing the reflection of two mirrors which act almost as television screens. Don’t get me wrong – It’s a clever shot – but in a highly charged emotional scene we don’t get to see the emotions of the actors. This is the very epitome of a director’s creativity undermining his own film.
And that really is one of the major faults of the film – we never get connected to the characters because we’re constantly aware of the director behind them. He frames them in corridors in which, we can’t fail to notice, the columns on one side are square and on the other side round. We see oblique shots in which forced perspective puts two characters sitting on the steps close together but we also notice that the dialogue is done with one character’s back to the other the entire time. That’s not a natural conversation; people tend to want to turn and face their partner when they are conversing.
One of the other fundamental flaws is that we never really care about any of the characters. Kogonada seems to keep them at arm’s length and even though they are talking about some fairly in depth background, it is all couched in self-absorbed and pretentious terms and after awhile we begin to tune out.
Maybe if the dialogue were scintillating enough I might forgive the film a bit more but it’s comparable to a couple of self-absorbed college students who are a lot less insightful than they think they are having a conversation about something esoteric without really understanding the subject completely. I get that Casey is a college-age character who fits that description (as is the Rory Culkin character whom I’ll get to in a moment) but there are also older characters who have more maturity at least but they still sound like 19-year-olds. Not that there’s anything wrong with 19-year-olds nor is it impossible for a college student to show insight but it is also possible for college students to be arrogant and condescending as well, and one feels talked down to throughout.
There is also a lot of material here that is unnecessary, brief throwaway moments that add nothing to the story or to your understanding of the characters – Casey has a conversation with her mother about not having eggs and needing to go to the grocery store to get some, for example. A good storyteller will use that as a springboard to get Casey to the grocery store so that something germane could occur but she never goes to the store nor is the egg shortage anything more than throwaway conversation – and the movie is full of these sorts of moments. I mentioned Rory Culkin’s character a moment ago and you might notice that he doesn’t appear in the plot synopsis. That’s because he doesn’t need to. His character is completely unnecessary and were his scenes to end up on the cutting room floor it wouldn’t affect the movie in any significant way. Much of this movie appears to be about how much our lives are consumed with things that don’t matter in the long run.
That isn’t to say that the movie is completely devoid of merit – although Da Queen might argue that point. Afterwards she told me she would rather have sucked her own eyeballs out with a straw than watch this movie again. I can understand that – the movie commits the cardinal sin of being boring, although those who love shot composition will look at this movie and be fascinated, but a movie is more than a series of shots or at least it should be. A movie needs momentum, a sense of movement from one place or tone to another and this movie has all the inertia of Mount Rushmore. Columbus requires a great deal of patience to appreciate and these days that’s in very short supply. It’s a movie that I would actually encourage viewers to text and talk during which is completely anathema to the movie experience I expect but then again this isn’t a movie that maybe a traditional environment isn’t suitable for.
REASONS TO GO: Some of the shots here are clever.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a movie that is self-absorbed and pretentious. None of the characters are worth caring about. There’s too much extraneous business and too many unnecessary characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vice-President Mike Pence grew up in Columbus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Literally, Right Before Aaron