Every so often on my late local news (and surely this happens in every other TV market in the country), I see a report about a crime that baffles me. I don't mean the kind of crime that leaves me wondering how anyone could do something so heinous to their fellow man. I mean the kind of crime that leaves me wondering what the hell were they thinking.
It's the kind of crime where three or four people hatch some hair-brained scheme to knock over a liquor store or scam a senior citizen or steal puppies from the mall or some other nonsense like that. And every time ... every time ... I have the same thought: if one guy hatches such a ludicrous plan, then fine. I mean, he's an idiot and all, but he was alone in his concept, planning, and (most importantly) execution. But it wasn't one guy; it was four. How did that meeting go? How did Criminal One frame the plan in such a way as to convince Criminals Two, Three, and Four that this plan ... THIS plan ... no matter how crazy it might have seemed, was the way to go?
Such was my thinking as I watched generation Um..., a film that reminded me of the kind of crime I see every so often on my late local news: poorly conceived, poorly planned, and leaving me to wonder how the film's creator could have possibly duped his accomplices into thinking that executing this film ... THIS film ... was the way to go.
Keanu Reeves plays John, a driver at an escort service whose only friends are two escorts, Mia and Violet (Adelaide Clemens and Bojana Novakovic, respectively). After dropping the girls off following a night of celebrating (such as it is) his birthday, John comes to the realization that he is at a point in his life where he needs to make a change.
I say "I guess" because nothing in this film is clearly defined at all, from the script to the plot to the caracters' motivations, which is especially true of John. That's not to say that I expect a precise moment of epiphany, followed by some pop-anthem playing over a montage of John making sweeping changes to his life (better diet, more exercise, no smoking, etc.), but I do expect to be able to read into a character's insights through dialogue, action, or both. Instead, the first half-ish of the film ... wait. Let's talk about half-ish for a minute.
I saw this film as a streaming preview screener on distributor Phase 4 Film's website (the film is set for straight-to-video release on May 28). Unlike any other video I have ever watched via a streaming channel - from cats playing piano on YouTube to teaser trailers on iTunes to full-blown films on Netflix Instant - this film had no measurement of time. Oh, it had a progress bar, and I could fast-forward, pause, and rewind, but at no point did I know how far I had traveled in the 97-minute journey that is generation Um.... I don't know if this was intentional so that I wouldn't have a chance to look at a timer and say, "Oh, still not halfway through; let me cut my losses," but it was a real condition. So I MacGyvered the situation and measured the progress bar at 6.5 inches.
Where was I? Yes. John's motivation. Up to about the three-inch mark, all we see is what John does - I mean literally what he does. See John drop off the girls. See John drive around New York and park in a garage. See John walk the streets, stop to eat a cupcake, and pick up a discarded portable TV set (about a 13-incher, I think) from someone's curbside trash. See John go home, try to feed his cat, drink a beer, and have a painfully awkward conversation - one with absolutletly no value to the viewer - with the guy crashing at his place. See John open a birthday card from his mom, go to sleep, wake up, and go get breakfast for dinner.
So if writer/director Mark Mann decided to use 3 inches of a 6.5-inch progress bar to illustrate the monotony of John's life, he did so without remembering that most people's lives are monotonous, so we don't need to be reminded to that extent. We all do the things John does, to one degree or another, so all we need are reminders of life's monotony, not the whole of life's monotony in one big chunk of progress bar. It's like a reality TV show of the most boring person on the planet. Who wants to watch this?
Speaking of boring, as characters go, John is like so many other Keanu Kreations - completely devoid of emotion to the point that you want to hold a mirror under his nose when he's not moving. To offset this, Violet has one of those overbearing personalities that only gets worse as the alcohol flows and the cocaine blows. Somewhere in between is Mia, who offers more proof of life than John, but without the loud blather of Violet.
The film has less of a traditional three-act structure and is more like a two-act play, and at the start of the second act, John changes. Seriously guys. It only lasts about two minutes (or one-eighth of an inch of progress bar) when, on pure impulse, John steals a video camera from a flash mob of hula-hooping cowboys and eludes them when they chase him.
After seeing this spark of personality and the accompanying pursuit, I had hoped that John would do something with his life other than eat cupcakes and pick trash. But he doesn't; he simply uses the camera to film the monotony of life around him. That's right, John films a boring film within a boring film. He then decides to film his two escort friends divulging the darkest secrets of their lives. Unfortunately, by the time the divulging happens, I cared less about John and the women and more about the too-slowly-shrinking progress bar. I won't reveal the girls' secrets here because I've probably already said too much about the movie and I don't want to "spoil" anything, but if you ping me on Twitter @ScribeHard, I'll gladly spare you the need for having to dig out your tape measure.
Whatever screenplay there is, I'd be willing to bet that phrases like "improvise," "wing it," or "make things up," are heavily used. If they are, Mann chose poor actors for such critical work, because no one sounds like they know what they are supposed to say throughout most of the film, and the things they do say have no conviction. If those phrases aren't in the script, the director simply can't write, as the dialogue is lifeless. Nor can he direct. Too much of this film looks like it relies on a tripod, something you don't want for 6.5 inches of progress bar.
There's also a great sense of creative immaturity from Mann. I understand that, as a driver for an escort service, John has a dead-end job. But there are thousands of dead-end jobs out there, and picking this one suggests that Mann wanted to unleash his inner 14-year-old and include a few sex scenes, one of which happens early in the film when, as John's birthday present, Violet hits her knees and performs a quick oral favor on him in a public men's room. When John finishes, Violet springs to her feet, looks John square in the eyes, and burps. Like I said: creative immaturity.
The film's tagline - TO SURVIVE YOU MUST DISCOVER WHO YOU ARE. OR NOT. - sums up the film perfectly, as its too-cute-by-half indecisiveness reflects the complete lack of direction or substance found within. So if you have the opportunity to watch this film and must make a choice, I say OR NOT.