Few actors carry over their onscreen persona from one project to another like Keanu Reeves. In recent years, however, his subdued demeanor has been virtually absent from American cinema, save for a handful of supporting roles and one vaguely interesting change of pace in the heist movie “Henry’s Crime.” Writer-director Mark Mann’s “Generation Um…,” a bafflingly irreverent, meandering character study, resurrects Reeves’ trademark inscrutable delivery, providing the actor with his most characteristic performance in years. It’s almost enough to salvage the scraps of ideas that constitute Mann’s story — but not quite. The movie belongs to Reeves more than anyone else.
In “Generation Um…,” which hits video-on-demand platforms today ahead of its theatrical release next week, Reeves plays a cryptic loser named John. Though the conditions of his employment are unclear for most of the running time, John’s life is defined by the time he wastes with two bubbly young women, the vulgar-mouthed Violet (a spunky Bojana Novakovic) and the comparatively low key Mia (Adelaide Clemens, now starring on Sundance Channel’s new show “Rectify”). His exact relationship to them is left intentionally vague, though they appear to share a passive-aggressive bond that hints at some kind of deeper connection beyond simple friendship.
But even if the premise comes across as an urban “Jules and Jim” in which the gender roles have been reversed, John has already grown tired of his ebullient companions. The first shot finds him driving them around town while they argue about the past tense of the word “shit,” a rambling discussion that devolves into an obnoxious beatboxing session and leads Reeves to crash the car in frustration before apologizing profusely. That moment sets the tone for a persistently off-beat narrative both frustratingly obtuse and filled with intrigue.
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Mann, making his narrative feature-length debut, takes his time constructing John’s world: Surrounded by a lively New York, he leads a voluntarily isolated existence. Shot in grimy apartments, street corners and diners, “Generation Um…” has the appearance of an early nineties indie as it delvers a scrappy portrait of an aging hipster struggling to justify his existence. Thematically speaking, it’s an ideal companion piece to last year’s similarly off-kilter “The Comedy,” in which Tim Heideker played a privileged Brooklynite annoying everyone in his path. John, by contrast, seems lost in his mind to the frustration and amusement of everyone around him. “You are so serious, man!” says his effusive cousin and roommate. “I love it!” That’s appeal of Reeves’ subdued delivery since the “Bill and Ted” days in a nutshell.
Reeves’ monotonous delivery takes on the dimension of a deadpan joke that carries “Generation Um…” through a curious series of sketches before it devolves into self-seriousness with its closing act. His blank, disaffected stare generates a strange form of pathos as Mann develops John’s drab environment: He receives a $75 check from his parents for his birthday and mutters about his inability to make rent, steals a video camera from a group of people partying in the park out of sheer boredom, and wastes time filming his two female companions jabbering about their lives. At first, Mann’s ability to capture John’s anguish maintains a captivating weirdness: At one point, receiving a blowjob in the bathroom of a bar, John’s POV drifts away from the woman below him and focuses on the graffiti on the wall, illustrating his complete incapacity to experience pleasure in his life. Later, speaking about the inertia that defines his existence, he sighs, “Your disappointment in yourself gets so much greater than your parents.”
This introverted perspective holds interest for a while, but eventually the pregnant pauses and persistent yammering in which the trio of main characters engage starts to look like somebody’s thinly-conceived idea of a mumblecore movie — including John’s, in the aimless concluding act, when he starts filming the sexual confessions of his ladyfriends. A final reveal that explains their connection provides too little too late — but even when it doesn’t work, “Generation Um…” stands out for multiple levels of strange, random inspiration. Though ultimately unsuccessful, it valiant reaches for a funky, wild critique of hedonistic sluggards wandering through society with no clear direction. But more than anything else, it delivers Keanu in his element.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Phase 4 Films releases “Generation Um…” on VOD today ahead of a limited theatrical release next week. Reeves’ draw may help the movie perform well on digital platforms, but mixed reviews and word of mouth will probably limit its potential in theaters.