You have to hand it to Andrew Garfield. Not everyone has the talent and the no-holds-barred commitment to create one of the most obnoxious characters in cinema history, but Garfield is up to the task in “Mainstream,” a vapid social-media satire co-written and directed by Gia Coppola. Garfield, also one of the film’s producers, throws all of his loose-limbed “Amazing Spider-Man” physicality and “Under the Silver Lake” slacker slobbiness into the role of Link, a preening, pseudo-poetic stoner philosopher who could be the grotesque lovechild of Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison in “The Doors” and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in “Joker.” What’s scary is the degree to which this excruciating film endorses his obnoxiousness. Surely we’re not supposed to like this poser, are we?
To be fair on Garfield, “Mainstream” is already close to unbearable before he appears. Its heroine is Frankie (Maya Hawke), a lonely 20-something who hates her job as a bartender in a scuzzy, magic-themed Los Angeles lounge bar, and who hopes that the videos she shoots around the city will get some likes on YouTube. Like a child who has just been bought a new phone, Coppola splatters these opening scenes with captions, emojis, pixelation, and tinny electronic indie songs, which is as annoying as it sounds, but at least she captures the sleazy side of LA with a clarity rarely seen outside of her aunt Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” and “The Bling Ring.”
One day, Frankie shoots a video of Link handing out cheese samples in a mall while dressed in a mouse costume. When she remarks that the shoppers are too uncultured to stop and gaze at the Kandinsky print behind him (maybe they’ve seen it before), Link leaps up and harangues passersby, telling them they should forget about their retail therapy and “eat the art” instead. Frankie is captivated by this cheese-shilling wild man, and her heart beats even faster when he jumps onstage at her club and ruins her boss’ act, before violently attacking one of the customers. She makes her adoration clear in one of the silent-movie caption cards which are another of the film’s affectations: “Charming, mesmerizing, most importantly, he’s entertaining.” At the time Frankie reaches this conclusion, Link is slipping off a banquette in a Thai restaurant (he invited her by asking, “Do you eat peanuts?”), and sliding down to the floor. Form a queue, ladies! The unacknowledged age gap adds yet another off-putting element to their burgeoning relationship. It may not be a chasm in movie terms — Garfield is 37 and Hawke is 22 — but as Frankie is so passive and Link is so confrontational, the film could be read as a cautionary tale of how vulnerable young people are to sociopathic predators.
It isn’t just Link’s anarchic act that attracts Frankie, however. It’s the number of hits his Kandinsky rant gets on YouTube. He professes not to know or care about the internet, but he is willing to encourage her so-called “art,” so they stage a parody of a “lifestyles of the rich and famous” video for which he adopts the nom-de-screen No One Special. (Whoa!) This, in turn, is such a viral smash that they cook up a game show with the help of Frankie’s writer friend Jake (Nat Wolff), the drippy nice guy who is obviously in love with her, and they sign with a manager played by Jason Schwartzman, the only person in the film with a glimmer of humor.
Link then becomes a messianic revolutionary, a la Peter Finch’s Howard Beale in “Network,” and struts around in a variety of shiny suits, preaching against living your life through your phone: most of us will have spotted the irony before a fellow YouTuber played by Johnny Knoxville is kind enough to point it out. There are a handful of sharp asides about YouTube, such as a Christian makeover specialist who teaches girls how to “look fresh for Jesus,” but most of the insights into social media’s appeal are banal to the point of feeling a decade out of date. People try to make themselves look like celebrities, you say? And they take photos rather than engaging with the real world? That’s such a mind-blowing revelation that I might have to delete my MySpace account.
The plot is just as predictable as the themes. Everyone watching will know where it’s going, although the viewer’s imagined version of the screenplay will likely be shrewder than the one written by Coppola and Tom Stuart. Theirs relies on the notion that someone can be an internet sensation, and yet not a single person would recognize them or find out about their past — even if that past was front-page news. But will Frankie ever realize that her patently horrible boyfriend is horrible and that her patently awful game show is awful? Click the like button and I might tell you.
“Mainstream” premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.