Review: The Future

Miranda July and Hamish Linklater in July's frustratingly odd sophomore feature. That t-shirt she's holding eventually starts moving around by itself, by the way. If that already bugs you, stop reading now.

How do I properly rate a film where I appreciated the intent, but despised the execution? Do I recognize that what I found grating, others may find fresh and intriguing? How should the effectiveness of a film be measured? If I concede that a film’s cinematic elements all come together effectively to get a director’s message across, yet those elements simply annoyed me to no end, am I obligated to bump my star rating up a couple of notches to remain objective?

Bullshit. Criticism is entirely subjective; no one views films in some mystical vacuum of opinion. It is not my job to tell you whether a film is great or mediocre or terrible. It is my job to tell you whether I thought a film is great or mediocre or terrible. I can only relate my personal experience and offer some possible avenues from which to consider a film. And it is my personal experience that “The Future” is frustrating, obnoxiously precious and too self-consciously whimsical to be relatable.

No matter how much I try to go into films with an open mind, I generally go into the theater with a pretty good idea of how much I’m going to enjoy a film. Even us film buffs have a limit on how much we want to spend on movies, and quite frankly I’m just not one to shell out $8 or $9 for two hours of tedium, if I can help it. And more often than not, the movie turns out how I expected it to; between professional critics, bloggers and trailers, I can figure out who to trust with my time and money. So far this year, only two films varied drastically from the expected curve. The first was “Rango,” a film I thought was going to be just another boilerplate talking-animals animated family feature, but ended up being a touching tribute to legendary Westerns and a thrilling action-adventure with gorgeous visuals, all wrapped up in a surprisingly understated sense of humor worthy of Wes Anderson.

The second film was “The Future,” which I went into with director Miranda July’s wonderful debut feature “Me and You and Everyone We Know” in mind. July started out as a performance artist, and she definitely transfered the quirky sensibilities of that medium into her cinematic work. But in that first film the eccentricities of, say, Christine’s amateur videos or the neighbor girl’s hope chest had a charming sense of purpose: “Me and You and Everyone We Know” hypothesized that love is finding someone who speaks our unique romantic language, and so the dreamy atmosphere and oddities of character emphasized this curious notion of shared individuality. The protagonists remained eminently relatable and pleasant to watch because their strangeness was an avenue to love and satisfaction, rather than a burden.

“The Future” goes for the latter route, with its lead couple Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) tackling the mysteries and frustrations of life in, of course, the most confounding, bizarre way possible. The adoption of a sick, stray cat sends (as these things always do) the two into a spiral of existential conundrums. Both in their mid-30’s, Sophie and Jason find themselves suddenly bleakly concerned with the passage of time: stuck in ho-hum employment, neither seems particularly close to accomplishing their dreams, and the couple decides that a shift in priorities is in order.

Of course, as with all such uncertain, adrift young people, satisfaction remains an elusive beast. Sophie, a dancer, embarks on an ill-fated web project, while Jason ends up going door-to-door selling trees, because…well, who knows why, really. Jason’s irrational shift in occupation is indicative of my principal beef with this film: while the characters’ plight may be significant and relatable to a significant portion of the population (myself included), the characters themselves behave in such inexplicable fashion so as to turn off theoretically sympathetic viewers. Sophie in particular constantly skirts the line between “quirky stereotypical indie girl” and “clinically insane yahoo,” embarking on an affair with another man in a sequence that simply defies any kind of logic, narrative or poetic.

And now I can go no further without mentioning July’s piéce de resistance: that stray cat I mentioned earlier is not just a plot device, but a prominent featured character in the film. From time to time, July cuts back to Paw Paw, as he is called, pacing his cage at the shelter and musing on the concepts of family and home. Now, if you pay attention strictly to the script, Paw Paw’s monologues are actually quite effective; indeed, they offer the antidote to Sophie and Jason’s confused thrashing. Paw Paw’s ruminations are rather positive and affirming, and are probably intended to present July’s solutions to the couple’s crisis. Unfortunately, what I am not mentioning here is that Paw Paw’s voice (July again, altered) is the SINGLE MOST ANNOYING SOUND ON THE PLANET, with the possible exception of fingernails on a chalkboard. It’s so insufferably cute that you kind of wish the damn cat would hurry up and die already, which I’m guessing is not what July was going for.

Look, “The Future” is not completely without merit. If nothing else, July’s peculiar style provides for several absurdly humorous moments, and Hamish Linklater lends Jason a sense of credibility that Sophie severely lacks, particularly in an affecting sequence in which a desperate, distraught Jason manages to literally stop time. In a recent article for the New York Times, A.O. Scott staunchly defended “The Future” (along “The Tree of Life” and “The Help”), arguing that most any cinema worth watching is worth debating. On that count, “The Future” is certainly a winner. But Scott goes on to claim that impatience with “The Future” results from a reluctance to face the social realities it presents, a resistance to being implicated in Sophie and Jason’s quandary. Speaking as someone who knows all too well that Sophie and Jason’s life could be my own, I must disagree: sometimes it’s not the question that matters, it’s how you frame it.

Now playing in indie theaters.

Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars

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