The Case For Mark Pellington's Sundance Offender I Melt With You

The mass walkouts were the first indication that Mark Pellington's I Melt with You was heading for a rocky Sundance reception; even critics who'd made it through couldn't wait to spill out into the hallways and let the vitriol fly. I Melt with You was, effectively, the first hands-down bomb of the festival. But does Pellington's midlife-crisis male-bonding thriller -- which was picked up today by Magnolia Pictures -- deserve all the flack?

Pellington's I Melt with You finds four 44-year-old college pals (Rob Lowe, Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven and Christian McKay) reuniting for a weekend bender in Big Sur fueled by nostalgia, narcotics and gleeful debauchery. Pills are popped by the handful, midlife anxieties come to the fore, and a house party with a bevy of young locals (including Sasha Grey as the philosophizing female participant in an emotionally disturbing ménage à trois) leads to Very Bad Things. Pellington shoots it all in a startling, if brash, pop-visual style as his tale gets dark, then goes even darker before eventually ending up in pretty much the darkest place possible.

That early reviews slammed the pic was hardly surprising, given that walkouts at the film's first press and industry screening were so distracting that one writer found himself keeping count. (Final tally: 46.) Slashfilm's Germain Lussier chalked up his dislike to the film's "anti-morals" and unlikable characters; The Wrap's Jeff Sneider called it "an overwrought mess" while HitFix's Daniel Fienberg described it as "over two hours of cocaine-snorting, pill-popping, alcohol-swilling middle-age crisis montages, punctuated periodically with The Whining of the Dispossessed Upper-Middle-Class White Male."

I Melt with You may be guilty on many of those counts, but it's hardly unreleasable. Pellington displays a bold visual sense, makes evocative musical choices, and has his clear connection to his characters, all of whom are 40-something men grasping to reclaim their idealistic younger selves. After hitting Hollywood with Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies, U23D, and Henry Poole is Here, I Melt with You feels like a vivid window into the former music-video director's own reclamation of his seemingly idealistic, fearless, punk-influenced teenage identity.

That nagging, haunting desire is exactly what Lowe, Jane, Piven, and McKay play with in the film, and whether or not viewers can relate may be the ultimate dividing factor. Their characters are reckless, even corrupt, but not without love for one another. When I Melt with You shifts away from its Hangover-esque debauchery and a pivotal pact from the past sets its morbid events in motion, the actors turn in some of their best scenes, together and alone. Piven in particular puts in clips for the career highlight reel as a fraudulent banker torn between two abysmal, face-melting fates.

The film's overriding punk romanticism is, unsurprisingly, not for everyone. It's for anyone who worshiped at the altar of the Sex Pistols in their youth only to wake up one day an adult trapped in an unsatisfying suburban nightmare, an extreme realization of an all or nothing fantasy that one can atone -- if at great cost -- for falling off the path they'd set for themselves. And somewhere outside of Park City, there's an audience of lapsed idealists and ex-punk rockers waiting for it.