From “Sunset Boulevard” to “Mulholland Drive” and beyond, most movies revolving around Hollywood hopefuls portray the greater Los Angeles area as a soulless cesspool into which the hordes can’t help but sink. But in his Tinseltown-set feature “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” Alex Holdridge reimagines L.A. as a place of renewal and unsung beauty: Skyline shots inclusive of freeway traffic, graphic compositions incorporating the city’s variegated architecture, and even the Hollywood sign shrouded by smoggy haze are lovingly lensed in stark black-and-white in obvious homage to Woody Allen‘s “Manhattan” (though this hipster kid on the block scores his images to the indie rock of Shearwater rather than Gershwin).
This appreciative perspective is filtered through the eyes of two recent arrivals, both by way of Texas — Wilson (Scoot McNairy) and Vivian (Sara Simmonds), an aspiring screenwriter and actor, respectively — who meet for the first time on New Year’s Eve day after the former posts a near-eleventh hour ad on Craigslist. After a quick cup of coffee that plays more like an audition, with Vivian in the catbird seat and a flustered Wilson just trying to keep up (she decides to give him until sunset to figure out whether she likes him or not in a possible nod to Richard Linklater‘s “Before Sunset“), the seemingly mismatched pair catch the subway and end up wandering around the ghost town that is downtown L.A. — activities of which almost no local would willingly partake, but narratively excused by their newcomer status.
At first you wonder why Wilson even bothers. Vivian exhibits the nicotine-twitchy noxiousness of a starlet waiting to be born, and his sensitivity sits uncomfortably next to her apparent philistinism. When he suggests they go to the MOCA, she dimly queries, “What’s that?” A short while later, asking if she’s read a particular book, he gets waved off, “No, books suck.” The girl’s also unattractively given to making sweeping statements, triggered, as often as not, by a phone call from an ex, leading her at one point to demand of her current date, “I mean, seriously, what is wrong with men? What the fuck is wrong with you guys?”
Still, Wilson hangs in there and is rewarded when Vivian reveals a more pensive bent to her nature as the two explore a shuttered movie palace. Staring at the ornate ceiling fixtures, they stand united in awe. For the first time, Vivian forgoes the knee-jerk sneer; she removes the sunglasses she’s donned since we met her, and doesn’t once light up a cigarette. Revived by the theater’s grandeur and humbled by its faded possibility, her human face emerges.
The further unveiling of Vivian’s softer side continues as she and Wilson come across a single shoe strewn on the pavement outside. She lights up and rushes towards it; turns out she’s been taking pictures of what she terms “lost shoes” for three years (and, naturally, maintains a website called thelostshoeproject.com). “How could anybody just lose one shoe?” she plaintively asks Wilson, and he appears visibly surprised, moved, as he contemplates her enthusiastic shutterbugging in a shot-reverse shot full of meaning.
Clearly the moment is meant to make Wilson, and the spectator, realize she has more depth than we initially give her credit for, but the scene, followed by a photo montage of abandoned shoes littering streets and sidewalks, struggles under the weight of its precious lonely-heart artiness. The snapshots voice the characters’ isolation, both adrift in L.A. after bad break-ups and waiting for their brands of rough beauty to be appreciated by some virtual stranger, but the sought-after sense of romantic unfolding here and elsewhere in the film feels affected rather than truly sublime; “Midnight Kiss” is too standard in its bittersweet conception and palpable in its striving for any real swoon to sneak in. And, as its title suggests, it has an agenda, which makes for schematic viewing as it attempts to hit its major marks before the clock strikes twelve.
Adding to the anomie are a series of details that gesture more broadly towards the thematic Alienation-Afflicted Modern World wallpaper against which Wilson and Vivian’s story plays out. “Midnight Kiss,” from its starting-point scenario to asides involving cybersex with a MySpace friend, the photoshopping of masturbation material, and a conversation that pivots on postsecret.com, seeks to illustrate the ways in which relationships are now increasingly mediated by technology. Holdridge seems to have lofty goals in mind.
Yet without further development (for a more thorough examination, see Joe Swanberg‘s “LOL“) the subtextual meme never amasses enough complexity, and begins to seem like just so much narrative clutter meant to lend heft to a slight story which, like the city it celebrates, conveys an aura of gritty glamour that only goes skin deep.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shotstaff writer.]