It seems almost inevitable that Rooney frontman, Coppola scion, and Jason Schwartzman brother Robert Schwartzman would eventually make a movie, and he makes his directorial debut with an earnest, musically themed take on the Mrs. Robinson myth with “Dreamland.” Co-written with Benjamin Font, the film stars the endearing, almost cherubic Johnny Simmons as Monty Fagan, a struggling piano player who becomes entangled with an older lover/benefactress, Olivia (Amy Landecker), while trying to sort out his life.
Monty, peddling piano lessons for $25 bucks a pop, dreams of opening his own piano bar, but he settles for a replacement gig filling in at the swanky La Petit Bel Ami hotel. It’s where he meets Olivia, an older woman who actually wants to have sex with him, unlike his longtime girlfriend Lizzie (Frankie Shaw). Their mojo has fizzled, partially thanks to her mom (Beverly D’Angelo), whom they live with. So when Olivia turns up, worshipful and libidinous and with plenty of “funny money” to invest in him, Monty willingly plays the gigolo.
“Dreamland” is literally that: a fantasy, a fairy tale that takes place in the real world but isn’t realistic in the least — which is not to say that it has to cling to realism. The film even starts with a failed sexual fantasy between Monty and Lizzie. It’s the type of movie where Monty seeks a small business loan from a “bank” that is more the abstract idea of a bank — a place where loan officer Jason Schwartzman never takes off his headphones, and props his Timberlands up on his desk to blab about million-dollar deals. Or where Lizzie cheats on Monty with a plumber (Nick Thune) in a scene that seems scripted right out of an ’80s porno (and would be sexual harassment in any other, non-porno world).
But reality or plausibility doesn’t have to be the standard by which we judge “Dreamland.” It’s a light whiff of a coming-of-age tale, but tonally, the film is all over the place, moving from dreamy Hollywood fantasy to millennial romantic comedy to relationship drama, and it doesn’t always blend. Its influences show, including, most obviously, “The Graduate,” but there are also shades of Max Winkler’s great 2010 film “Ceremony.” But though we’re supposed to be aligned with Monty’s experience (particularly since there’s an ostentatious male-gaze device introduced at the outset), the film often wanders away to other perspectives from the women in his life, Lizzie and Olivia, and the shifting viewpoints don’t work.
Soundtracked by Monty’s own tickling of the ivories and the director’s own energetic, synth-heavy work, the score itself is great, though it’s only intermittently successful when applied to the film. Sometimes it seems like a soundtrack to “Drive,” but instead of cool Ryan Gosling in a vintage whip, it’s Johnny Simmons navigating the mean streets of K-Town on a motorbike that’s a shade too small for him. The music pumps energy into the film, sometimes underlining the 1970s vibe, but it can also seem wildly at odds with the content.
Lynn Shelton’s DP Benjamin Kasulke lenses the film with a muted ’70s/’80s retro style, which pops to fantastical life when Landecker is onscreen, all red lipstick and pearls and gleaming white teeth. Landecker is one of the best parts of the film, a total seductress looking for a no-strings-attached boy toy, but one who unexpectedly ends up with feelings and attachments and complicated emotions of her own.
Flaws and all, “Dreamland” feels very much like a first feature. The appealing surface elements are all there — style, music, star power — but the story itself is one we know well, and there’s a lack of control over the consistency of storytelling or tone. Schwartzman has a predilection for experimenting with layers of sound, which has mixed results. It creates a richness of atmosphere and a seamlessness from scene to scene, but the extreme temporal shifts are jarring — why is there piano music playing when there’s no one sitting at the piano?
But there are a lot of ideas and a strong energy in “Dreamland,” which bodes well for Schwartzman’s future filmmaking endeavors. He’s got an eye for quirky and interesting moments in life, and if he can synthesize all of his ideas into a better-modulated and consistent whole, he’ll be a director to look out for. [B-]