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How to Talk to Girls at Parties
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by Jay Seaver

"Punk enough, but better when it's strange."
3 stars

Neil Gaiman's gift as a writer is that he can merge the fantastic with a sense of human isolation and, if the audience is receptive to that idea, make a person feel connected to the travails of a lonely god; director John Cameron Mitchell has shown a similar ability to connect with people at the margins. Mitchell adapting a Gaiman story sounds like it should be perfect, but "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" often comes across as having their talents a bit out of sync. Not enough to backfire, but the film only comes fully to life in its strangest moments.

There's a moment toward the end when Mitchell and company seem to show that, as local punk icon Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman) hears someone start to talk about wanting to buck the system and say something with music and makes it clear that she's heard this story a lot. It's not a bad story, but there's a certain irony to how, in the 40 years since this film's 1977 setting, punk as rebellion has been digested and normalized, with earnest Henry "Enn" (Alex Sharp), nerdy-and-probably-more-new-wave-than-punk John (Ethan Lawrence), and pugnacious Vic (A.J. Lewis) needing a lot more than their taste in music and decent performances to stand out. It's very familiar material, whether you like the scene or see movies like this as being about the one person in it who is not completely obnoxious.

That's why the three taking a wrong turn and ending up at something very different from the after-party they had intended to visit winds up being so much fun - these guys having absolutely no idea how to react to an abandoned house full of (mostly) young people in bright, color-coded outfits, doing bizarre dances to atonal music, and apparently having a completely different cultural frame of reference puts the punks on their back foot. It's tremendously funny - Mitchell throws trippy visuals, physical comedy, and a bunch of what sounds like utter nonsense delivered with complete conviction at the audience in a way that's just rapid-fire enough to ensure they laugh at every particular bit - but a huge part of the gag is seeing the rebels painted as the conventional ones. Yes, Enn winds up befriending Zan (Elle Fanning), who is feeling the need for her own sort of rebellion, but that most obviously leads to a bunch of jokes about how Enn, Vic, and John just think Zan and her housemates are Americans, as opposed to extraterrestrial bacteria colonies that have agglomerated into the forms of human beings.

There's a powerful idea not far under the surface - that as the punks push back against a society that is ostentatiously celebrating the Queen's silver jubilee despite the fact that the monarchy and state aren't doing much for them, Zan is picking up the concept of rebellion and fanning its spark among people who obviously need it more, as their parent-teachers ritually end their visits to new planets with "the eating", which is much worse than expecting poor kids without many opportunities to venerate the establishment. It's insanely unbalanced, though - given what Zan and her people are facing, why the heck are we seeing this from the point of view of Enn? He's nice, and he's got some lessons to learn about how both of his parents have done right and wrong by him, but maybe establish how Thatcher's Britain is primed to at least metaphorically eat him and his friends alive, and give the other aliens a little time to be more than just weird background characters. It also doesn't help that while the fantasy bits are good enough to work without a lot of specifics - in fact, they arguably resonate because they're aimed at that part of the brain that processes what things mean rather than how they work - the climax winds up playing on a bunch of alien rules that are both arbitrary and vague.

(There's also something more than a bit retrograde about how the script by Philippa Goslett and Mitchell, at least, seems fairly determined to push the female and female-shaped characters into maternal boxes - and that's before considering how the movie seems to celebrate absent fathers!)

For all those issues, a decent cast goes a long way. Alex Sharp may be playing a variation on the guy who is apparently punk in name only, but he does "in over his head" and sweet well, and adds enough edge to a scene or three that his diving into music with a bit of rage into it doesn't seem out of nowhere. He and Elle Fanning play well off each other, and though I sometimes suspect that playing the absurd with a straight face as she does as Zan isn't necessarily as hard as it looks - it's acting, which is challenging enough, but it's not entirely putting one's head in an alternate reality - she certainly delivers some odd lines better than most, and makes the shift to that after she's already impressed as not-weird for a couple scenes. The does better at chewing through a lot of weird alien dialogue than some actors do with just a little (although Ruth Wilson certainly deserves a shout out for high-quality deadpan in a great scene opposite Nicole Kidman, who makes Boadicea a sharp delight in too few scenes).

It's not hard to see why this one has taken a while to come out and then often in fairly limited release (in some cases, just as a midnight movie) - it's a film that's good enough and weird enough to feel like it should have an audience even when parts don't rub you the right way. And even in its lesser ones, it's hard to genuinely dislike a movie that has this much love and rebellion to it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=29881&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/04/18 21:01:28
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USA
  25-May-2018 (R)

UK
  11-May-2018 (15)

Australia
  25-May-2018 (MA)




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