THE ERRANT ATTEMPT AT ‘LITERALLY, RIGHT BEFORE AARON’

by Warren Cantrell on October 5, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

 [Rating: Swiss Fist] 

A cringe-heavy stroll through one man’s broken heart redemption tour, Literally, Right Before Aaron  (opening tomorrow at Screenland at Tapcade) is an endurance contest.

On the surface, it seems like a light romp through a middle-aged man’s attempt to cobble his self-destructed life back together, yet at its core, it is concerned with complicated notions anchored in regret, loss, and love.

And while it has profound moments that occasionally plumb these depths via wordless moments of truth, the film’s insistence on torturing its lead to allegedly humorous effect take the wind out of its sails.

The film opens with Adam (Justin Long) taking a phone call from his ex-girlfriend, Allison (Colbie Smulders), who tells him that she’s getting married. Through a series of well-placed flashbacks, the audience learns that what began as a tender, genuine college romance between Adam and Allison blossomed into a long, stable relationship that Adam subsequently nuked when he was in the midst of a frantic existential crisis. And while Adam is still getting over the anguish of having let this wonderful woman go a little over a year ago, Allison has moved on, made peace, and is offering an olive branch via an invitation to her wedding.

This is where the script begins to fail the movie, however, as it does not allow for any realistic path towards its second act. Why Adam decides to travel to San Francisco for the wedding despite all his grief is never really made clear. The script provides him friends that could serve as an audience-surrogate sounding board for Adam to explain his reasoning, but the movie doesn’t go there. Like many things in Literally, Right Before Aaron, the script seems to put Adam at the wedding just for the fun of torturing him.

Painful moments where Adam endures acerbic asides from strangers and old acquaintances grind him into a pulp over and over again, highlighting the fact that he is alone, and/or the flotsam of a disintegrated relationship. This is a weird choice, for Long is the undisputed master of tortured emoting behind a grinning façade, and as Adam, he pulls all of this off with his silent glances and posturing. The fact that the script takes time to beat him up ad nauseam isn’t just redundant, here: it’s unnecessary. Indeed, the good work the film does with its flashbacks and the quiet moments of introspection would have been more than enough to convey what all these awkward encounters hammer home.

As Adam drifts through the wedding weekend, from the rehearsal dinner to the main event, he seems to be groping around for some form of closure, or perhaps an honest moment where he can tell Allison how sorry he is. The guy is struggling with what he’s doing there, at the wedding, and much like the audience, is trying to find some meaning in the trip. As a character, he’s so bottled up that it is difficult to hone in on what his endgame is, however, which sets this movie up as little more than a showcase for an unsympathetic world to shit all over this poor guy.

Still, there’s several genuine, honest moments that breathe life into the story and ground it in a genuine place. A scene with Adam’s mom (Leah Thompson) rings especially true and provides some outside context to who her son is, and what he’s been through. Adam’s hilarious attempt at “getting back out there” also feels legitimate, and is painfully funny while adding yet another layer to the broken Lothario’s outer shell. The whiplash one feels as the movie pulls the audience back and forth between thoughtful silence and Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque encounters makes it difficult to enjoy any of this, though, for one is never quite sure which note this film is going to play next.

Writer/director Ryan Eggold is toying with some interesting stuff with all this, yet the emotional and thematic dots just don’t quite connect. The narrative thread runs through Literally, Right Before Aaron without too much trouble, but the “why” of the whole thing remains elusive. In The Graduate (which this movie makes a lot of subtle references to), the main character is a stand-in for a broader 1960s youth culture that doesn’t know what it wants to do or be, and finds solace in a vapid, broken mother figure. The journey of that movie is about growing up, leaving the comfort of the womb/mother, and fighting for one’s future and identity.

It’s hard to pin down what Eggold is trying to say about Adam, love in the 21st century, or just relationships in general, except that a person should enjoy what they have when they have it. If this is the point, Literally, Right Before Aaron succeeds to a certain extent. Long and Smulders do outstanding work, and Eggold does a wonderful job creating a genuine emotional response with the flashbacks and reminisces. John Cho also has a few scene-stealing moments as Adam’s friend, Mark, which does add some texture to things, yet what this all means in the broader scope is difficult to identify.

One gets the sense watching Literally, Right Before Aaron that Eggold’s script is the victim of writer’s tunnel vision, and that one more rewrite by an outsider could have provided the picture some thematic connective tissue. Since Adam spends most of the movie deflecting his true feelings, and lying about what he’s actually going through, the audience is never let in, and has to make assumptions about what’s really at stake. Adam is obviously in pain, and the victim of regret, yet what that means for him as a person wading into dicey, emotionally complicated waters isn’t clear until the loud bang of the movie’s finale. It’s a decent ride, and a fine movie, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated at the profound message that seems to be hiding just under the surface.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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