With his first two features, “Salt” and “The Exploding Girl,” Bradley Rust Gray established a patient, lyrical style in which form and content blended together with remarkably fluid results. “Jack and Diane” is an unfortunate break from that trend, a structurally messy and confusing attempt at magical realism that doesn’t find the clarity it needs to justify the rampant strangeness. Hyped for years as a whimsical project to watch, the concept never finds a coherent hook and instead drowns itself in atmosphere, a danger Gray’s earlier films managed to avoid.
It may have been inevitable fate. A longtime passion project for Gray, “Jack and Diane” was once set to star Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby. Now completed with the similarly feisty pair of Juno Temple and Riley Keough, the movie maintains a curious trajectory that occasionally clicks for the sheer offbeat investment Gray brings to his unconventional love story. However, as Gray explores the central coupling with a random, allegorical approach, he invites a mixture of confusion and boredom that stymies his ambition.
After a brief, inexplicable encounter between a bloody Diane (Temple) and a monstrous presence, the movie flashes back to an earlier period: Here, Diane hops off a New York City bus in search of her twin sister and wanders into the decrepit record shop where the instantly seductive and openly butch Diane (Keough) stands behind the counter. A few knowing glances and bar drinks later, the newly introduced couple have spent a passionate night in each other’s arms.
At that point, “Jack and Diane” branches out to explore the two women dealing with their respective issues at home. Jack constantly feuds with her mother while the British Diane, staying with her uptight aunt, attempts to hide her looming deadline for leaving New York from her new partner. Suffering from occasional nosebleeds and disorienting dreams in which she transforms into a hulking lupine terror, Diane inhabits a disorienting subjectivity and the movie takes the plunge with her to constantly mixed results.
Aided by special effects by the legendary animators known as the Brothers Quay, “Jack and Diane” contains terrific visuals and a contemplative soundtrack by Múm that justify the allegorical ingredients, even though they only take up a few seconds of screen time. That’s a compliment to the Quays and Gray’s underlying premise, with the seemingly meek Diane struggling against her inner demons. But the screenplay, in typical Grey fashion, focuses on quiet moments and insinuations too cryptic to complement the fantasy sequences, resulting in a mush of half-formed incidents.
None of this detracts from Gray’s conviction in the material, and his game leads maintain a credible romantic chemistry that imbues the movie with purpose even as it wanders from one disconnected moment to another. As a visible attempt to increase his ambition, it’s a wondrous, unpredictable journey into the emotional reality of a troubled relationship. It turns out the “lesbian werewolf” hype was an extreme misnomer, but the beast that Diane imagines for herself represents her psychological instability to an excessively cryptic effect, and looks fearsome enough to legitimize her frustrations. One might call it Grey’s “Requiem for a Dream,” but that overstates its significance. “Jack and Diane” showcases a terrific filmmaker tripping over his own daunting material.
Despite the unique concept, Grey’s story suffers from underwritten characters bouncing around an undercooked scenario. Questions about his titular lovers loom too large for the erratic events to escape scrutiny, and other tangents — such as Diane’s twin sister getting involved in an online sex video — further complicate the murky plot. The disconnection of “Jack and Diane” explains its discomfiting aura, and those familiar with Grey’s earlier films will recognize his vision here. With its use of city imagery and young lovers as its narrative anchor, “Jack and Diane” has much in common with Grey’s “The Exploding Girl,” but the simplicity of that movie’s plot stabilized it. “Jack and Diane” never settles on the clarity it yearns for. Instead, the mystical allure of a “lesbian werewolf movie” turns out to provide more value than the real thing.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Picked up for release months ago by Magnolia Pictures, “Jack and Diane” has enough hip cred and sexiness in its premise to attract strong numbers on VOD, where it lands on September 28th ahead of its November 2nd theatrical release.