By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 22, 2011 at 6:19AM
Miranda July returns to her playfully off-beat universe with her second feature, "The Future," the writer-director-video artist's long-awaited follow-up to 2005's "Me and You and Everyone We Know." Like that playful study of human behavior, the new work deals with people feeling isolated by the world around them. Simultaneously funny and sad in its evocation of an L.A.-based thirty-something couple worried about the next stages of their lives, "The Future" hits a uniquely somber note that's more impressive on the level of mood than narrative.
Beginning with credits placed over "stopped time," July delves into the personal dramas afflicting Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater, an established stage actor making his breakthrough screen performance), whose relationship dynamic grows troubled with the arrival of an adopted cat. The unlikely narrator of the story, the poetic feline "Paw Paw" establishes the movie's soul-searching vibe in the first seconds of the movie, romantically pontificating about his dream of going outdoors. (July assumes the cat's POV and operates a pair of puppet paws, instantly establishing the movie's lighthearted spirit.)
Forced to leave the ailing cat at the vet for a month before they can officially integrate him into their lives, the couple decide to look at that looming date as a turning point that marks the beginning of their next stage together. Contemplating the future instantly puts them on edge. "Forty is basically fifty," Sophie asserts, establishing an early midlife crisis that instantly offsets their joint stability.
Suddenly confused about their prospects together, they each seek out a new purpose. Jason quits his work-at-home gig as a customer service rep and randomly
joins a volunteer service to save trees, while Sophie decides to devote her life to dance. But their real transitions take place on personal levels disassociated from specific professional interests. On a whim, Sophie calls the artist responsible for a drawing the couple buys at the veterinarian's office, creating a secret bond with the older, suburban everyman Marshall (David Warshofsky).
Their burgeoning affair marks another instance in the July oeuvre of strangers forming a connection to assuage their collective alienation, as they did via the internet in "Me and You." In this case, however, Sophie's infidelity is the most conventional twist in a movie devoted to original strategies for evoking universal anxieties. When Jason freezes the scene to avoid confronting Sophie about her other man, he finds himself in an abstract limbo where his only companion is the moon, an affable cosmic presence willing to provide sage advice.
In her uneasy double-life with Jason, Sophie fears her evasion of responsibility in the form of a t-shirt that literally chases her down and engulfs her body, at which point she engages in a ritualistic dance that speaks volumes about her constant disorientation. Meanwhile, Jason also forms an unconventional bond—with an elderly man who may or may not represent Jason's future self. Comically odd and symbolically profound, "The Future" works wonders when July takes her intentions to their stylistic extremes.
With a delectable Jon Brion soundtrack guiding the proceedings, the movie adopts a familiar bittersweetness, but otherwise takes on a highly original tone. As the portrait of a relationship meltdown involving two eccentric creative types prone to self-doubt, July's sophomore feature bears a strong resemblance to husband Mike Mills's upcoming "Beginners," although July's version of the story has a more experimental edge. It primarily succeeds by leaving its metaphoric content open-ended, arguing that the only thing determinable about the future is that it exists entirely within the minds those willing to imagine it.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? As they did with "Me and You and Everyone We Know," July's idiosyncratic sensibilities are destined to divide people, although mostly strong critical reactions and a hip appeal among artsy crowds may elevate its profile. The movie's best hope lies with a smallish distributor that can tap into that niche audience and drive their support to a healthy life on VOD.
criticWIRE grade: B+