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AUSTIN — Written and directed by Max Winkler (son of Henry), Ceremony is littered with nods to and lifts from earlier tales of class-conscious young men seeking love in a world full of phonies. There’s even a character named Esme — a name many viewers will know from J.D. Salinger‘s world — and another named Whit, recalling the auteur, Whit Stillman, behind Metropolitan.
Sporadically funny though less effective at selling its melancholy undercurrents, Ceremony, which debuted here at SXSW prior to its April 8 release from Magnolia, could connect with quirk-hungry audiences.
Reminders of Wes Anderson are too numerous to cite, but reverberate loudly in the many affectations and manipulative strategies hero Sam (Michael Angarano) employs while attempting to steal Zoe (Uma Thurman) away on the eve of her wedding.
Crashing Zoe’s exclusive, beachside wedding weekend with his reluctant but eager-to-please buddy Marshall (Reese Thompson), Sam is ridiculous — a kid with swagger borrowed from pulp novels and a moustache only matinee idols should wear. The casting is just uncomfortable enough to succeed: Angarano sells the part about as well as his character convinces Zoe’s boozy brother (Jake Johnson, doing his best Mark Ruffalo act) he’s one of the crowd.
The film works best with the boys in infiltration mode — proposing awkward toasts, blending into the increasingly debauched action and trying to decide what to make of the surprising welcome extended by the groom, Whit (Lee Pace), who seems not only to intuit Sam’s plan but to be unfazed by it.
And why should he be bothered? The movie’s biggest weakness is its inability to convince us that any romantic potential once existed, or ever could, between beautiful, world-wise Zoe and the much younger, nothing-going-for-him Sam. If there’s any chemistry between Angarano and Thurman, it’s that of a goofy kid and an overindulgent aunt; even when the screenplay spells reasons out, we don’t believe them.
That makes it fairly difficult to get viewers too worked up over Sam’s oncoming heartbreak, though we might feel some sympathy after his inevitable fallout with Marshall — who finally admits he’s being exploited and stands up for himself just when Sam needs his support most.
Ceremony‘s storytelling difficulties are assuaged somewhat by a soundtrack offering well-chosen pop tunes and additional score by Van Dyke Parks. The score shows restraint even when Winkler paints with a too-broad brush (as with the unbelievably self-aggrandizing documentaries Whit makes in Africa). This along with solid performances keeps the movie afloat even as its protagonist crashes and burns.
Opens: April 8 (Magnolia)
Production Company: Nala Films, Polymorphic Pictures
Cast: Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman, Reece Thompson, Lee Pace, Jake Johnson, Brooke Bloom, Harper Dill, Rebecca Mader
Director-screenwriter: Max Winkler
Producers: Emilio Diez Barroso, Darlene Caamaño Loquet, Polly Johnsen, Matt Spicer
Executive producers: Jason Reitman, Daniel Dubiecki, Joshua Zeman, Corrie Rothbart, Billy Rovzar, Fernando Rovzar, Jeff Keswin, Alejandro Garcia
Director of photography: William Rexer II
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Music: Eric D. Johnson
Costume designer: Heidi Bivens
Editor: Joe Landauer
Rated R, 89 minutes
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