Thursday, March 17, 2011

SUBMARINE - as unsatisfying as onanism

This review is brought to you by The Ginger Dwarf, a man cursed not only with being short and ginger, but also with going to school in Wales.... 

I have never read “A Catcher in the Rye”. Perhaps this is why I felt deeply unsatisfied by “Submarine”, which, like onanism and caffeine, felt momentarily fantastic, but was ultimately disappointing. Its quirky humour, often delivered with deadpan voiceover, was at times inspired and very funny, but wasn’t sufficient to carry a movie which was too long and whose plot fell into facile traps towards the end. 

Richard Ayoade’s debut film (he wrote the screenplay and directed it, and most impressively, managed to live in Barry throughout the filming process, as anyone who has ever lived in South Wales will immediately understand), follows the travails of precocious pseudo-intellectual teen Oliver Tate. 

Oliver, best described as Wales’ answer to Adrian Mole, wears a duffle-coat and carries a briefcase around school. He obsesses about the nonchalant, twisted and red-coated Jordana Bevan, whose eczema and apparent bow-legs appear to be offset in his eyes by high-cheekbones and a flirtatious smile. That he is bound at some point to lose his virginity to her is a sine qua non, since this is a coming-of-age movie. And when the moment comes, pun intended, it is well executed and almost Andy Stitzer-like. Our solipsistic hero, encouraged by this victory and undamaged by life experience decides to try to save his parents’ marriage. Unfortunately for the viewers we simply don’t care enough about this awkward couple to care; they are just not likeable enough. They’re the sort of people who encourage their children to call them by their first names. We hardly envy their bourgeois hell. The juxtaposition of the parents’ decaying marriage and Tate’s burgeoning relationship with Jordana feels laboured. 

The only saving grace of this development is that it allows Paddy Considine’s character to run wild for a while. Much more of the dynamic between the mulleted Graham Purvis and Oliver could have been made, not least since, in their own ways, they believe equally in their own grandiose self-images. Prosaic characterisation is the film’s biggest let-down. Although he is bullied, it is refreshing that Oliver is not a total wimp, eschewing wholesale playground capitulation, but still he’s still whimsy and annoyingly affected. Jordana could have been more than the tough lass with a (barely) hidden soft side. Indeed, if this was a grown-up movie she’d have been a hooker-with-a-heart. Personally, I’d have preferred her to remain a hard-nosed and Juno-esque, or even better, like Sheeni Saunders’ “Portia Doubleday” in that other, excellent but neglected Michael Cera vehicle “Youth in Revolt”. Also noticeably implausible is the mother’s character. Albeit brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins, she comes across as far too sensible to fall for Purvis’ phoney wizard cum wedding DJ. Ayoade’s film has been frequently compared to Rushmore, indeed Wes Andersen regular Ben Stiller appears fleetingly as a TV soap star in Submarine. And yet the characters are self-involved and unpleasant, without the redeeming qualities which make Andersen’s films so textured. Despite the buzz, Submarine is underwhelming. Ayoade’s irreverent humour (he lists his influences for this film as Taxi Driver & Badlands – is he, even here, taking the piss?) is hit-and-miss and fails to convince in a movie which should have ended differently, and earlier. 

SUBMARINE played Toronto and London 2010 and Sundance 2011. It opens in the UK this weekend; in Norway on April 15th; in the US on June 3rd; in Poland in August and in Sweden on September 23rd.

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