**/**** DVD - Image A- Sound B+ Extras B
starring Lou Pucci, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Keanu Reeves
screenplay by Mike Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kirn
directed by Mike Mills
by Walter Chaw With the brief reprieve offered the Sundance imprint by Junebug now smelling a lot more like "fluke" than "trend," find Mike Mills's underwhelming Thumbsucker, another Sundance sensation so familiar in its affected suburban quirk that its peculiarities seem like formula and its attacks on middle-class perversity and malaise seem all too comfortable. There simply isn't much heart left in this pursuit, this punching of holes into the façade of planned communities and their plastic citizenry--this central conceit of broken people leaning on psychic crutches as the apocalypse of the day-to-day cascades in on them in blue, stylized waves.
Front and centre in this particular iteration is wispy Justin (an excellent Lou Taylor Pucci). Addicted to the succour provided by his own thumb (his Tao dentist Dr. Perry (Keanu Reeves) helpfully informs that it's a substitute for his mother's nipple), he seeks refuge in it daily while sequestered away in that eternal loci for adolescent introspection, the school bathroom. (See also: Pretty Persuasion, Elephant, '80s hair-metal music videos.) On his mind are parents Audrey and Mike (Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio), his debate teacher Mr. Geary (Vince Vaughn), his cruel tease of a girlfriend Rebecca (Kelli Garner), and eventually his dependency on medicinal speed to cure his ADD. When Dr. Perry zens him out of his oral fixation, Justin finds himself in an allegory for matriculation--that is, for being pushed out of the nest and into the frying pan.
Based on a cult novel by Walter Kirn, Thumbsucker works when its obsession with flight and freedom from dependency is carried in images and song (its soundtrack by Polyphonic Spree and the last new recordings by the late Elliott Smith will be the chief reasons for the picture's nominal success) as opposed to all the dark musings meant to underscore each character's own obvious dependencies. Audrey's retreat into a fantasy of meeting television star Matt Schram (Benjamin Bratt), Mike's repulsion/attraction to Justin's habit, Dr. Perry's reliance on Castaneda mysticism, Mr. Geary's desire to be "one of the gang" among his high school charges, and on and on--all of it is laid out in the sort of flat dialogue that used to indicate '50s Freudian repulsion/attraction operas, transplanted here as some kind of indictment of a nation hooked on any number of opiates: broadcast, prescription, or otherwise.
Just the craft of it (Mills cut his teeth on a few groundbreaking videos for Moby and Pulp), the steadfastness of its dedication to its minor message, makes Thumbsucker better than jejune, slick, edgeless stuff like Garden State and its ilk. But the picture suffers in comparison to films that address convoluted sociologies (people point to American Beauty, but really, this game goes all the way back to The Graduate) with fury and courage (like Todd Solondz's Palindromes and Happiness) or with surpassing originality and wit (like Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore)--it suffers most, in other words, from believing that what it has to say is still interesting, still revelatory enough by itself. It's a story suddenly ordinary, even dull, told in gestures of great import and flair, and while there are worse crimes, a mistaken belief in novelty can be crippling. Originally published: October 7, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Sony presents Thumbsucker on DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the movie's 'scope origins. The image is diffuse in terms of both contrast and detail--sometimes, at least, intentionally, according to director Mike Mills's loquacious feature-length commentary. Edge-enhancement is minimal, the compression is smooth, and no chroma noise results from the occasional surge of colour. Along for the ride is a very mild Dolby Digital 5.0 track, via which The Polyphonic Spree's song score doesn't so much surround viewers as cascade over them.
Extras include a "behind-the-scenes documentary" (22 mins.) and an interminable "Conversation with Director Mike Mills and Novelist Walter Kirn" (41 mins.). Find in the former a lot of gushing from Mills; find in the latter little but gushing from Mills, who has clearly co-opted the events that inspired Kirn to write the semi-autobiographical Thumbsucker for his own. Still, there's no denying Mills's kid-in-a-candy-store dedication to the project: We learn that he subjected the actors to various improv exercises and even convinced Kelli Garner to join the Sierra Club to get a better handle on her character's environmental rhetoric. Kirn, meanwhile, manages to weigh in with his thoughts on thumbsucking and the curious process of assembling a family from scratch before Mills starts treating him like a glorified psychoanalyst. A ROM-based "Director's Blog" ostensibly joins a handful of previews (for 2046, Breakfast on Pluto, Junebug, London, Memory of a Killer, Saint Ralph, and The Tenants) in rounding out the disc, though my merciful drive refuses to boot it up and other critics have reported the same problem. The Junebug, 2046, and Breakfast on Pluto trailers cue up automatically on startup.
**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B-
starring Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes, Lauren Holly, Allison Janney
screenplay by Zac Stanford
directed by Arie Posin
by Bill Chambers Considering the critical drubbing it received upon its theatrical release last fall, maybe it's naïve to give The Chumscrubber the benefit of the doubt--but where most accused it of sounding the death knell for the cinema of suburbia, I saw it as a full-blown attempted murder of same. (There's a kind of poetic justice in its distributor being the studio that brought us American Beauty, effectively allowing DreamWorks to put down the monster they unleashed.) In a genuinely haunting (and thus, misleading) opening sequence, Dean Stiffle (Jamie Bell)--note the play on both "stifle" and the American Pie-con--discovers the hanging corpse of his best friend Troy (Josh Janowicz) but doesn't have it in him to tell anyone. Dean's father (William Fichtner) is a best-selling author of self-help books who advocates his family's dysfunction, hoping it will generate material, and has turned Dean into the Cookie Monster of anti-depressants. Meanwhile, three troublemakers (Justin Chatwin, Camilla Belle, and Thumbsucker's own Lou Taylor Pucci) attempt to extort Dean for the drugs Troy left behind by kidnapping his little brother (Rory Culkin) but instead wrongly snatch "Charley" (Thomas Curtis), whose harridan mother Terri (Rita Wilson) and stepfather-to-be Michael (the suddenly-ubiquitous Ralph Fiennes) are too busy to notice, so preoccupied are they by their impending nuptials and Michael's attendant existential crisis. And Troy's mother (Glenn Close, still in Stepford Wives mode) is going door-to-door passive-aggressively blaming her neighbours for her son's death by reassuring them that she in no way holds them responsible.
From Garden State to Imaginary Heroes to The United States of Leland, no bourgeois pity-party is spared in this iconoclastic revue. The performances range from terrible-on-purpose (Fiennes, Close, and Jason Isaacs, whose first line as Pucci's father--"...You let your grades go now, maybe you don't get into a top-tier school"--hastily but explicitly lampoons the genre's default father-son conflict, thus throwing The Chumscrubber's true target of ridicule (movies about the middle-class rather than the middle-class itself) into sharp relief) to oblivious (Camilla Belle). Chris Klein's female counterpart, Belle was a specific tool plucked from obscurity for a specific film (in her case, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) and should've been put away immediately afterwards, although her urgent, drama-club delivery--especially in scenes that require her to dispense platitudes like a gumball machine--serves as a handy conduit for the filmmakers' burlesque contempt. Wittier than Not Another Teen Movie, stealthier than Storytelling, The Chumscrubber is such a deadpan pastiche that to roll your eyes at it ("[A] sour portrait of suburban hypocrisy," Sean Axmaker, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER; "The art of the suburban-culture film has become paint-by-numbers filmmaking," Jeremy Mathews, FILM THREAT) is to some extent recognize that the films it's satirizing have become indistinguishable from self-parody.
But, you'll ask, why does everybody on the DVD treat the movie as if it's a straight-up narrative exercise? I can't help but think back to Tom Wolfe's account of the time he appeared on a talk show with Costa-Gavras, who was there promoting Z. Wolfe was incredulous that Costa-Gavras brushed over Z's heavily political slant during his interview, and afterwards the director essentially told him that you catch more flies with honey. There's certainly a lot of honey in "The Making of The Chumscrubber" (12 mins.)--debuting helmer Arie Posin, the son of an unidentified Russian protest filmmaker, seems to have worked some Raymond Shaw magic on his co-conspirators, including Tarantino's erstwhile producing partner Lawrence Bender. Posin says he hopes the picture will bridge the generation gap, but honestly, I can't see The Chumscrubber doing anything but reinforcing parental prejudice against teenagers.
Unmasking a surprisingly sweet story thread about a necklace, ten severely-letterboxed deleted/extended scenes totalling 14 minutes round out the video-based supplements, not counting a block of commercials for the Red Eye and Just Like Heaven DVDs. Screenwriter Zac Stanford joins Posin for a film-length yakker that's again evasive but fitfully intriguing, though the two eventually get so caught up in what they're watching that they proceed to ape the onscreen action. For what it's worth, Posin is definitely a first-time director--every other shot is "the most important shot in the movie." Sporadic 'jaggies' and some light banding aside, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Chumscrubber proper is impeccable, while the accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is quite playful, particularly whenever the titular post-apocalyptic superhero--yeah, there are a few desperate bids for cult status, but at least Thumbsucker's insufferable New York-as-Shangri-La subtext is studiously avoided--rears his head. Or lack thereof. Originally published: January 26, 20064.