Filmmaker James Ponsoldt obviously has an obsession with alcohol abuse. His first film, 2006’s “Off the Black,” centers on a disillusioned alcoholic played by Nick Nolte (what a stretch) who asks a younger friend to pose as his son at a school reunion, while his 2012 follow-up “Smashed” follows a couple of married alcoholics whose relationship is threatened when one of them decides to jump on the wagon. Ponsoldt is set to direct the historical Hillary Clinton biopic “Rodham,” and one almost expects him to invent a severe drinking problem for the promising 1970s law student.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The director’s latest film is “The Spectacular Now” (which opens Friday), a seemingly juvenile comedy about teenage angst that eventually becomes another Ponsoldtian cautionary tale of a self-destructive sad sack with an overflowing flask. Miles Teller plays the commitment-phobic screw-up Sutter, a superficially popular but emotionally crippled high schooler and part-time tie-shop employee (working under boss Bob Odenkirk, who deserved more screen time than the two scenes he received).
Raised by his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) after his father long abandoned the family, Sutter is currently wincing over the rejection from his hot blonde girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). He wakes up in a drunken stupor on the front yard of Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a classmate who is supposedly a homelier type but, this being a commercial movie, is of course a perfectly beautiful substitute. He starts a reticent rebound relationship with the introverted Aimee while still trying to win back Cassidy, and in the process he’s forced to confront long-simmering traumas that threaten his own life, along with the existences of his loved ones.
Basing the movie on a novel by Tim Tharp, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber display a keen ear for naturalistic teenage dialogue, and Ponsoldt directs a couple of passages that are positively soul-stirring. The problem is that even before the film sinks into a snowball of misery, Sutter is an inherently unlikable sort, and it becomes a chore to watch him implode and affect the good people around him with his shrapnel. We grow numb to the film’s excess of moralistic, finger-wagging tragedies; it’s not a movie so much as a public service announcement more suited to drunk-driving courses than cinemas.
It’s clear, then, why Ponsoldt chose this material; it fits predictably into his teetotaling moral wheelhouse. We all know alcoholism is bad, and plenty of movies have wallowed in similar muck with better results; I felt a lot more deeply for Ray Milland in “The Lost Weekend” than I did this narcissistic teen. One day, maybe, Ponsoldt will abandon this kind of mirthless AA message cinema and make a film for the rest of us. Hillary’s waiting.
“The Spectacular Now” opens Aug. 23 at Regal Shadowood and Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, and Regal Delray and Frank Theaters & CineBowl in Delray Beach. It is also opening at AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach in Miami, and Regal Sunset Place in South Miami.