REVIEW: I Melt With You Mires Male Midlife Crisis in Overstyled Silliness

Movieline Score:

Perhaps it's fitting that talking about I Melt With You means talking about all the things it tries -- and fails -- to be. The story of a boom-and-bust weekend shared by four reuniting college cronies, I Melt With You is driven by music from its title on, setting the perennial crisis in middle-aged masculinity to glittery eighties beats. An industrial grade melodrama with more cuts than a pound of Bolivian marching powder, the movie aspires to all sorts of aesthetic heights -- from Reagan-era reckoning to Iron John implosion to feature-length video for a Jay McInerney cover band. That might make it sound like more fun than it is: Although a stark performative moment here and a cold, sexy shot there slip through, all of the film's lesser ambitions are undone by its most risible one -- to be serious, and thus be taken seriously.

First-timer Glenn Porter's script is divided into days, like a crime procedural, or a disaster film. On the first day, they gathered. The first to show up at the Big Sur palace inexplicably inhabited by failed author and English teacher Richard (a voracious Thomas Jane) is Ron (Jeremy Piven), an equities trader wading in both paper and calls from the SEC. Then come Tim (Christian McKay), who fills his days being gay and depressed, and Jonathan (Rob Lowe), a divorced doctor with a very flexible prescription pad. Upon convening the drug vortex opens and quickly sucks the quartet in. They bond by executing white powdered donuts around each other through the night, like a gruesome bachelor party -- The Hangover 45? -- with no bride, no Vegas, and no pretense of being either fun or funny.

The eclectic range of its director, Mark Pellington, includes everything from white-collar thrillers like Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies to music videos and concert films like U2 3D. Both extremes are present and accounted for here, the former in an awkward development involving a local law enforcer played by Carla Gugino, the latter especially in the endless, self-enamored drug sequences. Between binges the men pair off to express their disappointments with life, becoming momentarily vulnerable and/or repulsed by the other's momentary vulnerability. When each character retires to a private space it is to moon over cell phone photos of distant children, or abandoned art projects, or subpoenas from the aforementioned SEC. As a group the men become another thing entirely, a single entity engaged in an increasingly desperate ritual.

The nature of this ritual is probably the movie's most compelling theme: At some point each character is given a chance to direct his nihilistic, over-privileged gaze into the camera, and I Melt With You is most interesting when it courts the convergence between the exorcistic workout its actors are sweating (and competing) through and the extent to which their characters are performing for each other. Jane tears through his part like a famished animal, Piven as usual is a credibly brash, and McKay tries to counter the flying scenery with droopy stillness. But it is Lowe as the unhinged alpha preppy who carries off some of the film's most convincing moments, whether they call for effortlessly casual (and yet never wholly unattractive!) cynicism or the reversion to the infantile state in which Jonathan can ask his ex-wife the question that has him drugging himself into an infantile state in the first place: "Tell me again how it went from you loving me to you not loving me."

At a full two hours, I Melt With You's slide into fatalism feels long-delayed, then absurdly splashy. After they throw a party attended by porn whisperer Sasha Grey ("Death is something to attain," she shrugs between snorts of coke) and a bunch of college kids trying on their received philosophical wisdom like dad's dinner jacket, the men are rather grimly reminded of a gothy frat vow they took 25 years earlier. From there, the story spirals into a kind of moral silliness, the competition between the men raised to absolute but ill-defined terms. The challenge to simply do something and mean it is framed as a revelation for the tortured sell-out set. In another light the group's -- and the film's -- portentous resolution looks a lot like quitting, in true slacker style.

Follow Michelle Orange on Twitter.

Follow Movieline on Twitter.