Following a stint helming 2008's hopeful, thought-provoking character study "Henry Poole Is Here
," director Mark Pellington returns to the pessimism of 1999's "Arlington Road
" in "I Melt with You," a cold-blooded snort of near-hopeless cynicism that will divide audiences as sharply as quite possibly any release of 2011. Not without contrivances, the film barrels toward an outcome as bleak as it ultimately is inevitable, the viewer asked not to agree with the actions of its characters but to at least understand the hows and whys of their hellish undoing. Some might not be able to make that leap, while others, like myself, will have no choice but to admire the picture's ruthless, pained audacity. First-time screenwriter Glenn Porter's galling vision is met head-on by Pellington's melodic filmmaking expertise; a quartet of commanding, vanity-free lead performances, and cinematographer Eric Schmidt's (2011's "The Mechanic
") blistering camerawork of a seaside paradise turned imminently portentous.
In a bachelor pad looming above the cliffs of a Californian oceanscape, Jonathan (Rob Lowe), Ron (Jeremy Piven) and Tim (Christian McKay) have reunited at college buddy Richard's (Thomas Jane) part-time abode for a full week of debauchery and catching up. The emphasis is on the former, with the four 44-year-olds wasting no time reverting to their post-adolescent ways of binge drinking and drug-taking. Instead of forgetting their worries, however, the substance abuse and past reminiscences only serve to dredge up painful wounds and a fatalistic pact they made together twenty-five years ago. Before they know it, they have gotten so deep in over their heads, even local police officer Laura (Carla Gugino) is at a loss for how to talk one of them off the ledge, so to speak. "Don't do it," is all she can muster. By this time, she knows that no matter what he does, his life is over.
"I Melt with You" is about "woe-is-me" middle-aged men, hesitant to connect with each other beyond a surface level because they're afraid of what they might have to confront. In finally seeing each other, there is no choice but to take long looks at themselves. Staring back are people they never would have guessed they'd become when they were still in college and had an idealistic world of hopes and dreams laid out before them. By not being able to see the bigger picture of their ever-evolving lives, they are faced with the tragedies of their here and now. For Tim, he has been unable to move on from the untimely death of his boyfriend five years prior. Jonathan feels like a failure as a father, seeing his young son once a week and devastated that he's begun to call his ex-wife's new husband "Daddy." Banker Ron is in some deep trouble, faithful to his wife but privately guilty of pocketing large sums of money from his clientsa breach of trust and honesty that is fast catching up with him. And Richard, an author-turned-English-teacher, his terminally single, sexually promiscuous lifestyle is one that doesn't seem as desirable as it did a few decades ago. When he reasons his noncommittal relationships with women by saying that he can't love one when he loves them all, it comes off as a point of obvious denial.
When the frighteningly dark premise reveals itself by the halfway point, the film raises the stakes while stretching plausibility. Hinging these guys' decisions on something they wrote and signed all those years ago is difficult to accept at first, but then reveals itself to be more a symbolic catalyst than the actual reason they do what they do. Jonathan, Ron, Tim and Richard are not equally likable, but there is something profoundly sad about them. Having moved disparately away from who they once wanted to be, they nevertheless are stuck in neutral, forever destined to cling to a time they can never get back. As host of the festivities Richard, Thomas Jane (2007's "The Mist
") favors an abrasiveness that gets old after a while. The other actorsRob Lowe (2009's "The Invention of Lying
"), Jeremy Piven (2009's "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard
"), Christian McKay (2009's "Me and Orson Welles"), Carla Gugino (2011's "Mr. Popper's Penguins
"), and Arielle Kebbel (2009's "The Uninvited
") as a young waitress Richard invites over to party with themare unequivocally excellent. Portraying fast imploding figures too fragile to handle what's coming to them, Lowe, Piven and McKay individually stir and impress while freeing themselves of inhibitions.
The four friends at the center of "I Melt with You" aren't exactly smart, at least not from a logical point-of-view. If they were, they wouldn't create a blatantly obvious crime scene that anyone with half a brain could piece together by stepping foot on the property. Then again, the point might be that they just don't care. Self-destructing from too many drugs, from too much self-effacing clarity over the disappointing people they've become, and from the peer pressure that plagues them as fortysomething men, they are at the mercy of dire circumstances they can'tor foolishly choose not tosee beyond. Bolstered further by a magnetic soundtrack that includes The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and, yes, an atmospheric update of the title tune by Modern English, "I Melt with You" dares to go to some notably grim psychological places as the moody, pulse-pounding musical beats keep coming. When so many movies can't even exact one strong emotion from viewers, here is a motion picture that frustrates, haunts and fascinates in equal measure.