Employing similar symmetrical framing and tracking shots, classic rock soundtrack flourishes and quirky, fanciful characters, Max Winkler‘s directorial debut, “Ceremony” feels heavily indebted to the early works of Wes Anderson. Arguably a derivative effort in that sense, the film is still not without its delightful little charms, and despite the obvious familiarities, is still entertaining and engaging.
Michael Angarano stars as Sam, a young and struggling unpublished children’s book author filled with an inflated self-confidence, not unlike a certain Rushmore Academy overachieving dreamer you may be acquainted with. His friend Marshall (Reece Thompson), is still suffering the after-effects of an assault in New York and under the guise that he’s been a bad friend and hopes to spend more time with him since he’s let their friendship atrophy, Sam invites the shut-in and sensitive young man for a weekend trip to the Hamptons. The narcissistic and self-involved Sam seems to have his heart in the right place, but cracks in his veneer seem to reveal that the invitation is also made out of convenience; his credit card can’t pay for their dirt hole hotel which Marshall has to cover, the heavily medicated boy has a car while Sam does not and a second-hand buck knife with someone else’s initials is a cheap, year-late birthday gift from the thoughtless friend.
Eventually the ruse reveals itself, though Marshall doesn’t clue in until much deeper into the picture: the infatuated and naive writer has brought his friend to help him gatecrash the wedding of Chloe (Uma Thurman), the older woman who he adores and spent a night with several years earlier. Not fully enamored with her assured, cocky fiance, Chloe had pursued a pen pal relationship with Sam in the ensuing years that we’re to believe cuts to the core of the not-entirely-satisfied, happy or understood female.
A devilishly good Lee Pace, plays her self-absorbed, self-important jackass husband-to-be, Whit, an African wildlife film director; perhaps a riff on Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. Having lost their parents in an accident years ago, Chloe’s only other family, Teddy, her sad and drunken younger sibling — a scene-stealing Jake Johnson — is dreading the idea of her leaving him and is going through his own booze-sozzled crisis that’s hilariously enjoyable.
Chloe is immediately shocked to see Sam at the weekend’s pre-wedding beach party and begs for him to leave, but soon he’s introduced to the cocky and confident Whit who recognizes him as a non-threat and invites him and his milksop-like friend — who regales every guest with his story of woe despite Sam’s insistence that he make up some elaborate lie — to stay the weekend, much to Chloe’s chagrin. As the weekend progresses, the delusional romantic that is Sam attempts to “win back” the woman whom he never really had. The weekend itself contains a lot of wry laughs, some excellent comedic performances, a great soundtrack (Ringo Starr, Vampire Weekend’s frontman covering Paul Simon), and more than a few tears that put this adolescent man-child character in his coming-of-age place.
While, “Ceremony” has its aforementioned flaws, the cast is an utter delight. Lee Pace shines as the pompous ass Whit, and while Angarano seems to be playing a slight derivation of Max Fischer from “Rushmore” — complete with the same insouciance and precocious cavalier attitude (and lexicon) — he imbues the character with effortless zest and is more than capable in the lead role (in fact, Jesse Eisenberg was once the lead of the film and we can’t even picture him in it now; Angarano embodies the sanguine character). And again, Jake Johnson as the convivial, but perpetually melancholy Teddy is just a riot of comedic timing and delivery. Admittedly, the more intolerant may find the Anderson-isms and the coy, clever/cute deadpan dialogue grating; it is well written, but still feels it could have come out of the mouth of a Jason Schwartzman or Owen Wilson character.
But even if the film as a whole doesn’t quite make a convincing case for its premise, it is peppered with a number of strong, individual scenes (particularly in the latter stages of the film) that show material with a deeper heart than the surface tics and winks seems to suggest. A late scene between Sam and Teddy and some sequences with Sam and Marshall near the end of the film are wonderful, honest character slices we wish there were more of.
Though uneven, Winkler’s instincts are very strong. From casting to set design to the ace twinkly score by Eric D. Johnson (aka Fruit Bats; special nod to Van Dyke Parks for his additional music as well), Winkler has a creative focus that is rare in debut features. While not particularly original, “Ceremony” clearly demonstrates that Winkler is talented, both from a writer and director perspective and once he’s found his own voice, he will likely become quite the double threat. [C+]