Film reviews: The Way, Way Back, Pain and Gain, One Direction: This Is Us and Upstream Colour

Adolescence is a whole other kettle of conflicts and anxieties in America, compared with Planet Earth at large. What spooks the youth in the land of plenty? If The Catcher in the Rye first captured the ghosts of US teenhood, the catch has proved catching, and even gone viral. This week’s The Way, Way Back, like last week’s The Kings of Summer, is a comedy charmer putting the blame partly on the country’s bland-souled prosperity – man cannot live on bread alone, but middle-class America tries – and partly on duff parenting and duffer step-parenting.

Bashful 14-year-old Duncan, winningly played by Liam James (a closed oyster guarding a secret pearl of self-knowledge), arrives at the summer-hols beach resort with divorced mum (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend. This Stakhanovite pest, who seems to be competing for Stepdad of the Year, is played with droll panache by Steve Carell. First the boy barely talks. Then he is rescued by an out-of-blue mentor, a genial, blabbermouth worker-manager (Sam Rockwell), shelling out profane or iconoclastic wisdom at the water park where Duncan takes a truant day job.

At times we want to say: “Hey, Duncan’s elders don’t find out about his moonlighting? Until the vacation’s last day?” Clueless parenting seldom goes this far. But the movie’s minutiae are so winning, from the funky-funny dialogue of writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who scripted The Descendants) to the supporting cameos led by Allison Janney as a potty-mouthed, life-and-soul neighbour, that grand mosaics of structure or meaning become background priorities. Never mind the text; feel the texture.

We know what the road to hell is paved with. If you need reminding, watch Pain and Gain. Hell is an overblown Michael Bay thriller-cum-black comedy based on a true story of kidnap, extortion and intended murder perpetrated by bodybuilders attached to a Miami gym. The good intentions are/were to make a gritty, sardonic, even subversive drama-satire: a low-budget labour of love – signalled before production began by the stars’ and director’s pay deferrals – masterminded by the man who made Transformers.

Forgive me while I weep in despair. Pain and Gain is awful beyond imagining. Awful beyond dictionary definitions of awfulness. Scenes of violence and torture are directed as if violence and torture were audio-visual rock ’n’ roll. The story structure zigzags like a drunken elephant. The permutating voiceover narrations resemble an idiot’s Citizen Kane. Mark Wahlberg, looking overweight, and Dwayne Johnson, looking dazed, search vainly for that seam of gold that lies somewhere between comedy and tragedy. It is a search that has defeated better actors and, god knows, better films. NA

Absurd sight of the summer: the Simon Cowell-constructed boy band One Direction have just been booed while accepting a gong at the MTV Video Music Awards and are beckoned backstage by Lady Gaga. Clearly staggered by the catcalls that conveyed the first evidence of their mortality, the five boys stand before Gaga (dressed in two lone scallop shells and a thong) who headmistressishly assures them of their status as artists, a fact about as rigorous as when Gaga emerged on stage at Scotland’s T in the Park festival in 2009, considered for a moment the rolling hills of Kinross and yelled: “Hello London!”

One Direction have been riding an astonishing wave (a combined personal wealth of £25m) but have now been booed, and will doubtless turn up in a Bret Easton Ellis novel some time soon. Until then, their management offers this cynically “humble” documentary, directed by none other than the anti-capitalist scourge himself, Morgan “Devil’s Shilling” Spurlock (Super Size Me).

The handsome five tour the world serenading $50m-worth of damp T-shirts freaking out like an attack of ancillary X chromosomes. “You have to squeeze into your jeans but you’re still perfect to me,” goes one song lyric. “I know you’ve never loved your stomach or your thighs, but I love them endlessly.” (Boys, let me tell you something about women. None of us wants to be loved for our mind.)

There is a very peculiar exchange of power going on between the fans of One Direction and the band, that makes the movie feel more than anything like a horribly grovelling, Mr Slopeish bow. One Direction were made famous by 2010 X Factor voters before they even had a song to plug, and their followers have an air of entitlement and ownership more immense and monstrous than anything previously seen. The fans are perpetually online congratulating themselves over the success they have granted the band. The film crackles with this reverse flexing of power, this bitterly merciless pact. “Let’s all take a step back and think about what we have achieved. We should be proud,” is a recent, entirely typical blog post – not from the band, but from a fan.

Upstream Colour
has been touted as miraculously mysterious, and certainly looks that way for a while. A woman is kidnapped and fed a hallucinogenic worm, after which she becomes ruinously dissociated. She falls in with a slim-jawed stranger on a train (played by Shane Carruth, also director) who may have experienced the same thing. What will become of the fearful, smeary-faced lovers? Who is the man with the angry Cumberland piglets?

Many things are thrown into the pot, and for a while Carruth keeps everything metaphorical and sexually charged. There is some unusually marvellous CGI as the appalling worm roams about the body just under the skin. But the story clouds over. Carruth has stated that the film is about “identity”. Always a worry when a director employs a deftly meaningless abstract noun. Still, he is evidently more than good at creating tensions and inexplicable transformations – and sensations. At times the movie has a stunning George Saunders-level sci-fi blues ... but really, it’s NYC hipster existentialism. AQ

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