Easily the first hard flop of the Cannes Film Festival, the warning signs were there but perhaps we didn’t pay them much mind. If everything had gone according to the original plan, “Restless” would have already come and gone in theaters and never hit the Croisette. And that probably would have been the better for everyone involved. Instead, a rightfully nervous Sony scuttled a planned January release and shuffled the film over to their indie division Sony Pictures Classics to handle. Kudos for them for getting the film into the opening slot of the Un Certain Regard section of the festival, because after seeing it, that must have been nothing short of a coup.
It’s hard to know where the film was foiled — whether it was in Gus Van Sant‘s completely anonymous direction or the derivative script by Jason Lew — but “Restless” wears its amalgam of influences on its sleeve yet has no idea what makes them special. The film starts with a nod to “The Graduate” is what is a bit of a reversal on the reference. As Simon & Garfunkel sing, Enoch (Henry Hopper) sits on the back of a bus headed to a funeral. Cut from the same cloth that made Harold in “Harold & Maude,” Henry is a bit of a gloomy soul, crashing funerals for reasons that are initially unclear. After his latest clandestine attendance at a memorial service he meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a Mia Farrow-circa-“Rosemary’s Baby“-haired young girl who immediately and directly calls him out for the hobby. And as it happens in movies, is also completely smitten with him. The two circle each other warily at first, but are obviously attracted to each other, but yet, they each have their own dark secrets.
So what happens for the next interminable hour or so is an endless string of reveals. Both Henry and Annabel each seem to get multiple confession scenes, where they reveal something (quite obvious) about why they have their innumerous quirks, but two things about them you already know: Henry is friends with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), while Annabel has terminal cancer. But don’t let that stop the cuteness! Annabel, without hesitation, starts rolling with Henry to funerals and the two strike up a distinctly unique relationship that revolves entirely around lovey dovey talk that, due to both of their morbid streaks, is framed around death, blood transfusions and ghosts. Awww. It’s interesting — for a moment — but each death tinged come hither becomes staler and staler to the point where you just want to throttle someone to speak a line that would resemble something anybody would actually say.
At one point, even Gus Van Sant seems bored by his own movie so let’s cue up a montage with our lovely duo embarking on a bunch of new activities together! With no jobs and no money, these two cutie pies seem to have found a vintage clothing goldmine, because we’re pretty sure if we bought half the stuff Annabel was wearing for our girlfriend, we’d be flat broke. Any costume design enthusiasts take note — there is a beautiful little sequence in here for you. But the tailor-made-for-indie-approval goodness doesn’t end there. The film boasts a score by Danny Elfman — which isn’t too surprising considering Annabel is pretty much a variation of Lydia from “Beetlejuice” — that basically sounds like something Mark Mothersbaugh would’ve written. And in case the already flatly mapped emotional beats aren’t thuddingly obvious, Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens are there on the soundtrack to make sure you know exactly what to feel. Oh, but we’ve saved the best for last. The film ends on a fucking montage (another one!) set to Nico‘s “These Days.” Whoever music supervised this movie should be fired. We shouldn’t have to tell you the Wes Anderson connection, but in a movie that floats by with a big of whiff of insincerity and pandering to begin with, that moment puts the nail in the damn coffin, tosses it in the grave and pours the dirt on. And moreover, coming not so after a long extended scene in which the characters literally decried sappy movie-like death scenes, it’s as if Van Sant just gave up. Hell, even ace cinematographer and longtime Van Sant collaborrator Harris Savides seemed to be going through the motions behind the camera.
Running a scant 90 minutes, almost every element of “Restless” feels like the script needed another pass. The character development is shortchanged on nearly every corner. Annabel’s mother is introduced as a borderline alcoholic in one scene and then disappears completely only to reappear near the end of the film rather uselessly. We’re not really sure why it’s in there at all since she has no bearing on the plot or Annabel. Aunt Mabel (a sorely underutilized Jane Adams) is raising Henry, but the only indication of how much she sacrificed to take him under her roof is revealed with two sentences far too late in the picture. Henry also happens to have an aversion to cars — the reason why we won’t spoil here — but one key sequence (which also happens to be on the back of yet another reveal, natch) forces him to have to get into a car but there is no moment set aside to consider how monumental this actually is. Instead, he gets car sick and then embarks on an elaborate pretend game with Annabel in a foggy forest immediately after.
And that’s exactly what “Restless” feels like: a game. It’s a game of spotting the references and then sitting there, jaw dropped, as they are skated over, as if by simply nodding at them the film gains instant credibly and insight. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Hooper and Wasikowska are game but they are let down by a script that doesn’t offer them too much more to do that make saucer eyes at each other over increasingly tired and self-aware dialogue. As for Van Sant, this certainly isn’t a commerical movie — it’s easy to see why Sony didn’t bother; as romances go, it’s pretty weird — but it’s not his movie at all either. It could have been any number of Wes Anderson clones knocking their way around film school that directed this and we wouldn’t have been any the wiser. The only thing “Restless” offers is the titular feeling you’re going to have enduring this at your local arthouse. [D]