The worst thing about Mark Mann’s Generation Um is that it won’t likely be seen by many people. That’s a shame because it’s worth 97 minutes of your time(1) (even if it sometimes feels longer.) It’s a challenging, plodding film about introverted and slightly unlikeable characters doing questionable things with their lives. Any one of these factors can kill your box office figures, and together they’re tough to overcome. If you don’t like slow moving character studies then you probably won’t find much to love about Generation Um. But I do, and did.
Another big reason your aunty and uncle won’t be seeing this at the multiplex despite it starring one of Hollywood’s most successful leading men and a pair of up-and-coming talents, and that is because lazy critics have mislabeled it a mumblecore film(2), essentially ending any conversation about its artistic merits or entertainment value before they could be uttered. Mislabeling a film is a serious offense. Fight Club wasn’t an action movie, Silver Linings Playbook wasn’t a heartfelt romantic-comedy. Expectations play a big part in whether you enjoy a movie or not, and if you like a movie you’re more inclined to recommend it to your friends (or blog followers). These word of mouth recommendations are essential to getting a movie like Generation Um seen as you’re not very likely to see plastic figurines of the characters in your Happy Meal.
You might argue that there isn’t a big difference between any standard low budget, characterand dialogue-driven dramas and a typical mumblecore, but that’d be silly. Here is a bit of clarification (as far as I can tell, although who the fuck am I?): “mumblecore” is a movement, not a genre. There are mumblecore comedies, dramas, and horror films. The most well-known mumblecore directors have their own style. I know when I’m watching a movie by Joe Swanberg or Lynn Shelton, Aaron Katz or Andrew Bujalski, all interesting filmmakers creating beautiful little gems that appeal to limited (but steadily growing) audiences. None of their films are particularly similar to their contemporaries’ although they tend to be somewhat amateurish and can be rough around the edges, otherwise the only common threads include heavily improvised scenes and naturalistic dialogue, a director in their early- to mid-20s, and budgets that would hardly fill your piggy bank let alone feed your crew. Given that Mann is in his 40s, the movie was shot on film, it stars motherfucking Neo, and everything you see on screen — including the squirrel sequence and the much talked about cupcake scene — are delivered as scripted, Generation Um strikes out in all the above categories. Even the freewheeling feel of the movie is deliberate. Generation Um isn’t a mumblecore movie, but it is a movie about misunderstanding, so it’s only fitting critics have miss-categorized it. (Yes I’m looking at you, Variety and LA Times.) In short, if you don’t like slow building character studies then yeah, fine, this probably won’t be your cup of tea, but let’s at least call a spade a spade. So now that that dirty business is done with, let’s talk about the story.
John (Keanu Reeves) just celebrated his 40th birthday. He lives in a slummy New York apartment with his obese cat and his 20ish-year-old cousin Rick (Jonny Orsini). He spends time with Mia (Adelaide Clemens) and Violet (Bojana Novakovic), a couple of hardpartying ladies in their early 20s, and he avoids pretty much everyone else, including his fretting mother who wants to get in touch to wish him a happy birthday. John wanders the city drinking coffee in the day and booze at night. He has a million-mile stare and doesn’t talk much (and when he does it tends to be nonsensical pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo(3).)
New York is expensive and John relies on a variety of means to pay the bills, some of which are probably illegal. He mopes because he doesn’t know how to break the mind-numbingly repetitive cycle. Hell, not even the occasional blowjob in the local pub’s bog can put a smile on his face, for fuck’s sake! John drags his feet around the city and mills about his bedroom until we get to the first turning point, about 30 minutes in, when he follows a crowd of balloon-toting weirdos to a park where they perform a Country Western cowboy hoola-hoop dance…thing. Some idiot sets his camera on the ground and turns his back so John, being an opportunist, gets himself a new video camera and narrowly escapes the Cowboy mob in the movie’s one and only action sequence. He proceeds to record squirrels in the park before turning the camera first on himself, and then on introverted Mia and bratty Violet, roommates and BFFs since meeting a few months before. They prance around in their underwear and stare deeply into mirrors as though that might conjure up answers to some of the universe’s deeper secrets.
The girls are really into sex, drugs and rock and roll. With the camera rolling, John shadows them as they take turns telling stories that may or may not be true. Pretending they’re the stars of their own reality TV show, they reveal details of their lives with an un-bashfulness that can only have come from learning life lessons from the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo instead of mindful parents. John probably fancies himself as a protector and father figure (which explains his blasé reaction to the bj – he accepts it more as a professional courtesy than giving into carnal desires.) The characters seem to exist by floating from one moment to another, stuck in a big swirl of bland repetition, and the audience is tugged along for the ride. John doesn’t seem too interested in breaking free. If this was rehab, he’d be somewhere between recognizing he has a problem and dwelling on potential ways to escape the cycle, but still miles away from taking any meaningful action.
John, Mia or Violet are souls adrift on a sea of self-loathing. They love and need each other despite getting to this point from vastly different avenues. Although they seem to enjoy the particular sway, none of them are keen to rock the boat and I don’t get the sense that any of them are particularly afraid of drowning, either. It’s a fragile balance, and one which requires a lot of trust.
A few small surprises arise as the histories and relationships are revealed, and there is even a twist ending of sorts. It’s quite a bit lower on the whoa! scale than, say, if John revealed he could see dead people, but the impact on the story is no less important. What the final 5 minutes does is give new context to everything we’ve seen. What felt like a loose, rambling cautionary tale tightens in a heartbeat and you realize everything exists for a reason as it builds to the only logical conclusion. The best endings are those which are both surprising and completely obvious, and the finale here was an expertly executed maneuver which I fear the subtlety and beauty of was lost on the critics who dismissed the movie as aimless or boring.
Mann’s experiments with blocking put the focus less on the characters and more on the details of their surroundings — in most cases, those spaces tell us more than any movement or dialogue could. The editing is nicely done with humorous moments coming on the back-end of shots that are deliberately held for a half-beat too long. The movie isn’t quite linear but it’s not quite nonlinear, either. Mann deliberately dislodges the audience from time and space, and if you feel a bit lost well then welcome to the club, brother. It isn’t a stretch to think the audience should have been given a Hello My Name Is… sticker upon arrival.
Reeves has played similarly unmotivated characters in the past but not to this degree and his performance holds the film together. Bojana and Adelaide are promising young talents who buy into their roles and give wonderful and completely unglamorous performances. As with the characters they embody, there is a lot of trust going on here, and it pays off.
Generation Um might be in my favorites list at the end of the year, or it might not. Who knows. At times we are treated to well-lit sets, deliberately composed shots, and nice music selections. Other times the camera shakes like a Bourne movie on cheap speed, and the dialogue comes across like first year university students who’ve just discovered Nietzsche. But what I do know is I’m compelled to watch the movie again, and I’m going to tell my film-loving friends to check it out.
- And the many hours after the viewing dwelling on the movie. It doesn’t go away easily, which is a good thing.
- One of my favorite scenes takes place in a small café where John catches up with ex-military buddy Charles (Daniel Sunjata). John’s musings about his apartment building’s left and right turns had me recall the scene in The Dreamers where Michael Pitt is fascinated by how his lighter fits perfectly in the square patches on the table cloth. Both of these are wonderfully understated moments in films filled with wonderfully understated moments.
(This review was originally written for Cigarette Burns Cinema and London’s 2013 East End Film Festival. The abridged version can be seen here. I left out the mumblecore rant mostly for word count purposes but also because I didn’t think the film festival goers would give a shit. I also cleaned up a few words here and there.)