St. Elmo’s pyre: I Melt With You (no stars)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 17, 2011)

Time-he flexes like a whore

Falls wanking to the floor

His trick is you and me, boy

-David Bowie

 It had to happen. Hey, it happens to all of us, if we live long enough. Remember the Brat Pack? It is currently their turn. Molly Ringwald could very well be having one as we speak. James Spader? I’m sure he’s had his, by now. Charlie Sheen? No question there. Oh yeah, I think you know what I’m talking about…the Midlife Meltdown. And, in all sincerity, I do hope that the rest of Generation X is weathering that storm with considerably more élan than the four not-so-gracefully aging protagonists at the heart of Mark Pellington’s navel-gazing, plug and play Sundance-y whingefest, I Melt With You.

Co-produced by Brat Pack chairman Rob Lowe and sporting a (mostly) 80s soundtrack that could have been hand-picked by John Hughes in Heaven, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (sans the laughs) and teeters precipitously between a Janovian therapy session, an AA meeting and an acting contest. Ready to play? Excellent. First, let’s meet our contestants.

Say hello to Jonathan (Lowe). He’s a self-loathing doctor, divorced father of one and a firm believer in getting high on your own supply. Please welcome Richard (Thomas Jane). He is a self-loathing English teacher, a failed writer (is that redundant?) and a lady-killer with a deep fear of commitment, who still parties like he’s 18.

And over here we have the “responsible” member of our team, Ron (Jeremy Piven). He is a self-loathing Wall Streeter who is financially successful, has a wife and kids, and has been recently experiencing  anxiety attacks about a pending federal investigation of his investment firm . Finally, say “hey” to Tim (Christian McKay). He is the “sensitive guy”. He is of indeterminate career path and sexual orientation, but the one thing we’re certain of…he’s self-loathing.

The four have been pals since they were teenagers, and have stalwartly adhered to the tradition of an annual get-together since college graduation back in the mid-80s. “Get-together” is actually more of an operative term here; not too long after all four have converged at their rented Northern California beach house, it becomes evident that “bromantic bacchanal” might be a more apt descriptive.

Our tipoff comes as soon as the doctor arrives, with an MD bag full of pharmaceutical goodies that would make Hunter Thompson break into a cold sweat. In fact, the guys dive into this heady cornucopia with such hasty and reckless abandon that you’re not sure if the inspiration here was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…or Leaving Las Vegas. But you know, boys will be boys, right?

And the director proceeds to pound that point home again and again, whilst setting out to show the French what a montage is all about. Music cue! Here we are, totally wasted, slam dancing to the D.K.’s! New music cue! Here we are, still totally wasted the next morning, nude body surfing while the Clash sing (wait for it) “Charlie Don’t Surf”! New music cue! Let’s roll down the sand dunes in a whimsical fashion to the strains of Adam Ant!

But as anyone who has been on a bender can tell you (or anyone who can read the title cards that helpfully offer “Day 1”, “Day 2”, etc.), at some point, you’ve gotta start coming down. That’s when the confessionals start. That’s when the conversation turns from “Dude! Remember that time that we…?” to “God, my life is shit!” It’s OK though, because dude, my life is shit, too. Let’s hug. “I love you, man”. I love you too, man (sob).

After a (very) long hour of such antics, the story takes an abrupt 180. Because you know what “they” say: It’s all fun and games, until someone loses an eye. Well, no one literally loses an eye, but one of our heroes (I’m not going to say who) goes a little “funny” in the head. You know what I mean, Dmitri? Anyway, he goes a little “funny”, and so he goes and does a silly thing. I can’t tell you exactly what he does, because that would be a spoiler.

Let’s just say that his actions serve to stir up a Dark Secret from the Past (you’ve seen one of these in a flick before, right?) that involves all four of the friends. There’s something about a magic ring, and the end of the world, but I can say no more, bon ami.

About this “180” in the second half. It’s tricksy and false. It is such a preposterous turn of events as to stagger belief (even within the parameters of an artistic medium in which the suspension of disbelief by the viewer is expected), and it stops the film dead in its tracks. Alas, nothing can save the movie once it has turned down this path; not even the formidable power of Carla Gugino’s amazing bee-stung lips (she plays the local sheriff, if it matters to you).

I can’t fault the cast; they are all fine actors, generally speaking. It’s just that I can’t decide which is more heavy-handed; Pellington’s direction or Glen Porter’s screenplay (I imagine it sounded like someone building a shed as he was banging it out).

The sole thing that kept me going through the last act was the anticipation of hearing the jangly power pop strains of Modern English wafting through the air…and it never happened. No “Making love to you was never second best.”? No “hmm hmm hmm” sing-along?! Perhaps it would have been more apropos if Pellington had named his film after the Sex Pistols song he uses over both the opening and end credits:

“Pretty Vacant”.

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