Nick Cassavetes has yet to hit on a filmmaking style to rival his father’s legacy, but with “Yellow,” the director of “The Notebook” presents an unhinged portrait of emotional turmoil with bold stabs at expressionistic representation at every turn. It’s not only Cassavetes’ best movie, but also a fascinating alternative to conventional melodrama that burrows inside its troubled protagonist’s head and unleashes her emotions in vivid terms. No matter how messy it gets, “Yellow” renders a troubled subjectivity with striking creativity.
Cassevetes’ wife Heather Wahlquist delivers a phenomenally unhinged performance as substitute teacher Mary Holmes, a pill-popping manic-depressive living out a vapid life in Hollywood while haunted by her many past mistakes. A more credible version of the headcase played by Cameron Diaz in last year’s “Bad Teacher,” Mary has suffered from a long trail of mistakes that stretch back to her youth and grow evident over the course of the story, but the resulting psychoses are evident early on: When Mary gets mad at the world, she dreams up alternatives, and much of “Yellow” consists of her bizarre fantasies.
The first indication arrives during a tense exchange between Mary and a rival teacher that devolves into crude opera — faculty members hit ridiculous high notes as they hash out their differences (the lyrics, which include a rhyming of “substitute” with “prostitute,” compensate for their crudeness with prevalent silliness). Similar outlandish digressions abound: Bored with the class curriculum, Mary pretends the classroom has flooded while the decorum devolves into a surreal playground. Cassavetes pushes his audacity one step further when, faced with financial problems, Mary opens her closet to discover a chorus of lavishly costumed dancers delivering a wicked musical number about the perils of a broke life. The choreography calls to mind Busby Berkely, but in context the sequence owes a greater debt to Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” which similarly used ironic musical numbers to convey the repressed anger of a darkening soul.
Leaving her job and heading on a road trip to visit various people from her earlier life, Mary launches into the movie’s comparatively subdued second half, where her maniacal tendencies and vulgar fixations come across in sadder tones that convey the mood of a Todd Solondz film. Even then, the erratic pile-up of absurd visions — including a deliriously amusing use of animation. Some fragments are more effective than others at conveying Mary’s troubled nature. Occasionally, the screenplay (co-written by Cassavetes and Wahlquist) presents Mary’s lurid daydreams with no apparent function other than to keep the gimmick alive, such when her relatives transform into cannibalistic human donkeys around the dinner table. But other tangents hold more introspective weight, none more than when Mary gets knocked off her bike and soars downward in slow motion while her home crumbles to pieces behind her.
The character’s vivid imagination is convincingly linked to her real life dramas. Haunted by her father’s death and brother’s incarceration, she lives in constant denial. “I can’t experience anything,” she says, so she turns to fantasy instead. Her home is populated by non-existence children to represent her past abortions and her dead father frequently counsels her. At one point her surroundings transform into a stage show. Cassavetes compliments these wackier moments with more controlled narrative trickery, including scenes that find her strolling through her promiscuous path and looking down her past exploits. It doesn’t help that she’s surrounded by equally deranged people, including a foul-mouthed friend (Sienna Miller) she incorrectly diagnoses with Tourette’s Syndrome. In truth, the only symptom behind the franticness that everyone feels in “Yellow” is a world far less satisfying than the ideal they reach for.
The inundation of craziness is often humorous by way of implication, but the movie’s downbeat atmosphere presents a startling contrast to the inner workings of Mary’s mind. Not every stylistic tangent sticks, but Cassavetes shows an inspired commitment to the conceit with relentless ingenuity, creating an experience as wildly unstable and provocative as Mary herself.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie is a little too odd and bleak for mainstream commercial appeal, but should attract a buyer able to market its wackiness qualities to generate solid returns in limited release.