Review: “Restless”

1. I would call "Restless" an infuriatingly empty exercise in self-satisfied quirk if it weren't too turgid to even aspire toward "quirky." This is one of those movies that is so lacking in self-awareness, so deficient of even basic principles of human behavior, you watch waiting for the turn that reveals the whole thing is a joke. The whole thing is not a joke. The worst part about it is that it thinks, because of its very existence, that it is somehow above the conceits and conventions that would give it its power, if it cared enough about them to even sink to their level. "Restless" fails in every possible way, and I can't even tell if it cares enough to even care that it fails. The movie just sits there and laughs at you, trying to figure out whether it's purposely this pointless or not.

2. You should know: Generally speaking, films by Gus Van Sant, who directed "Restless," drive me crazy. I'm not sure I've liked one since "To Die For" (which I did quite like), and I'm willing to give a small pass to "Milk," if just because Dustin Lance Black's script is so solid and sturdy in its biopic conventions that Van Sant would have had a hard time mucking it up. The thing that drives me most crazy about Van Sant -- and if you ask me, his worst movie is "Last Days," which is particularly bad about this -- is how proud of himself you can almost see him being behind the camera. He always holds his material at arm's length, and then tells you the movie is about his arm. Even his more innovative techniques are self-aggrandizing; the endless takes of "Gerry" had a sort of existential purity to them, a purity he then beat into the ground by applying them to stories they had no business being applied to. (Seriously, some day I'm gonna punch "Last Days" in the face.) Van Sant has gimmicks and a keen visual eye, and he calls that "style." No, he commands you to call them his style. He will just not get out of the way.

3. Which might be the strangest thing about "Restless." This movie tells the most conventional story imaginable -- a sensitive lovelorn kid falls in love with a girl who is dying of cancer -- and then does nothing with it. You keep waiting for it to, but it just sort of lies there. Of all the movies for Van Sant to get lazy on, this is the one he stays out of. You ruin the Kurt Cobain story with gimmicks, and you ruin the Columbine story with gimmicks (and a tendency to preach, selling out that gimmick), but you leave this alone? He has to be just screwing with us now. That is the whole film: It is a Lifetime movie at its core and its edges. All Van Sant does it drape it in Pure Portland, giving everybody look-at-me costumes and a jangly, cutesy-cutesy soundtrack. This is derivative at best, and a sad old man's cliche at worst. This is, essentially, Manic Pixie Dead Girl.

4. Another Van Sant trademark: Using non-actors in major roles so that, you know, the film feels real. Sometimes this works -- I'm a little surprised Gabe Nevins of "Paranoid Park" hasn't done anything since that film -- but most of the time it doesn't, and it really doesn't in "Restless." I mean no offense to Henry Hopper, making his "adult" acting debut in "Restless," but his character desperately needs a real actor, not a serious of pouting poses. His Enoch -- this name, "Enoch" -- is cranky, bratty and entirely undeserving of the affection of the Manic Pixie Dead Girl, a fact the movie touches on but never runs with. What's going on in Enoch's head? Hopper's too busy posing for an album cover to get into it. Mia Wasikowska does her best to be as charming and likable as possible, but she thinks she's in an actual movie. She isn't.

5. And I haven't even gotten into the dead kamikaze pilot who is Hopper's imaginary friend, for reasons that might have made sense in the screenplay but are languidly ignored here. I honestly have no idea what this movie is trying to do. Is Van Sant playing a joke? Is he trying to make a Portland kid's romance? This movie pretends it's about death -- our couple meets because Enoch crashes funerals, a literary device that has no relevance here -- but it never scratches past the perfect pale void faces of its leads. This won't rank all that high on the lists of reasons Gus Van Sant movies drive me crazy, because I won't remember it in a week. The real problem is that you wonder if Van Sant himself will either.

Grade: D