People in L.A. are weird. That’s my first impression of Eugene Kotlyarenko‘s “A Wonderful Cloud,” a movie based in eccentric Los Angeles, where “first impressions are everything.” That’s a quote from one of a dozen or so colorful supporting characters who make sure that it’s at least an entertaining kind of weird, elevating the film well beyond its central meta fixation on the film’s director (playing an exaggerated version of himself) and Katelyn (Kate Lyn Sheil, whom you’ll immediately recognize as Lisa from “House of Cards“). The two were a couple in real life, and Kotlyarenko had already documented the fallout of their relationship in his Skype film “Skydiver,” so he’s clearly holding on to something dear from their relationship. It’s commendable that he’s funneling these feelings through creative means in a quasi-fictitious feature where most of the dialogue is completely improvised, real people portray parodic versions of themselves, and the audience is treated to a surprisingly textured portrait of the unvarnished souls of L.A.’s post-modern art scene.
Five years after the breakup, Kate is visiting Eugene in L.A. to finalize some paperwork on the fashion company they both started. But he’s more interested in making her realize how big of a mistake she made when she dumped him, without necessarily wanting to get back with her. Whatever the case may be, he’s clearly bruised and is tenaciously nervous about seeing her again, given how his life spiraled out of control after their breakup. He looks bored out of his mind while having sex with Joy (Rachel Lord), who’s cleverly kept off-screen during the opening moments as a declaration of how little she matters to him, while doing everything to hide his pathetic state of affairs. Kate seems nervous too, but manifests this more subtly, mainly by creating a distraction for herself with her iPhone by recording the surroundings. Eugene’s ways of dealing with seeing an important ex are drastically more obnoxious, such as taking a shit with the door open and discussing his expectations of his stool. ‘Cloud’ is definitely going to be a patience-tester for audiences when it comes to Eugene, because if he seems to be playing an exaggerated version of himself.
What saves Kotlyarenko from his own caricature of himself are instances when he comes off as endearingly funny. Coupled with the vital support of Sheil’s emotive charm, the film is reigned in every time it threatens to unravel from self-parody into self-aggrandizement. Case in point: he takes out Kate for some food on her first day in the city and tells her what she should put on her sandwich because that’s what makes it so good. She goes for something else after the vendor’s unsuccessful suggestion that “it’s the best, it’s the best.” “She doesn’t want the best,” quips Eugene deftly, “she wants the worst.” Before a wry smile threatens to give him away, Kate shuts them both up: “I want second best.” It’s this kind of playful banter told in jokey tones but hiding implicit weight that’s peppered throughout “A Wonderful Cloud.” Fueled by the creative liberation of improvisation and steered by a real-life shared history, these tête-à-tête’s are very natural and unassuming.
But that variety of back and forth is only a taste of what makes “A Wonderful Cloud” a treat for fans of contemporary grassroots indie filmmaking and post-mumblecore comedies. Most of the plot sees Kate and Eugene going to parties and hanging out with various characters from his life. Kotlyarenko amasses a small legion of local artisans, fashionistas, self-absorbed iconoclasts and bored narcissists in supporting roles, and they wind up stealing his thunder. There’s Vish (Vishwam Valandy), Eugene’s friendly neighbor who masturbates a lot and makes shitty art; Lauren (Lauren Avery) who’s going through serious(ly hilarious post-breakup issues of her own; Lauren’s psychic neighbor (Elisha Drons), whose living space is like a giant laundry basket; and Paulston (John Ennis) as a sleazy fashion mogul who gives Kate a lot to think about concerning her career. Three parties punctuate the film’s action, and the “revelers” therein help create an entertaining portrait of an excessively image-obsessed Los Angeles art scene.
At one point, the title stops referring to the familiar ninth cloud of relationship ecstasy, which bookends the film with real life phone footage of Eugene and Kate circa 2010, and starts referring to the virtual cloud of data sharing and communication via social media. The state of contemporary relationships, whether involving friends, ex-lovers or strangers, has taken shape due to lightning-fast consumption needs. That’s what “A Wonderful Cloud” is reaching for with Kate’s iPhone POV, Skype chats that cover the entire screen and tight close-ups of texts. But Kotlyarenko puts these elements mostly in the background and makes sure to keep the tone at the half-serious level throughout, which works in the film’s favor. Genuinely funny and endearing without seeming desperate, “A Wonderful Cloud” overcomes its main subject’s dislikable personality traits and maintains a good kind of weird. [B]