Judge Russell Engebretson melted a few times, but he's much better now.
When life hammers you, get smashed.
In spite of the Sundance Film Festival walkouts and subsequent scathing reviews, I was mesmerized by I Melt With You, a raging, melodramatic tale of male middle-age angst rocking to the rhythm of a throbbing Punk/New Wave soundtrack.
Facts of the Case
Four middle-aged, childhood friends reunite once a year for a week of high octane partying. Their get together is fueled by dollops of sex, continuous punk rock, and ingestion of heroic amounts of mind-altering substances. The friends are Richard (Thomas Jane, The Punisher), an English teacher who lectures to a class half-filled with bored teenagers; Ron (Jeremy Piven, Black Hawk Down), a wealthy stockbroker who may have crossed the line into financial criminality; Jonathon (Rob Lowe, The West Wing), a divorced gynecologist with a practice that has become little more than a drug dispensary, and Tim (Christian McKay, Borgia), a bisexual grieving for a lost lover.
For their meeting place, they rent a house in Big Sur, a large, rambling structure perched atop a cliff with postcard views of the beach and ocean. Between bouts of joyous, hardcore debauchery, the friends reminisce and begin to confide their disappointments and failures. None of them are who they thought they would be twenty-five years on. Although they don't know it yet, the forty-something group of friends are experiencing their final reunion.
I Melt With You begins with a montage that lasts for less than two minutes, introducing each of the four male characters, then abruptly cuts to a black field stamped with short phrases in large, white, block letters:
"I Am A Man; Now I Remember; I Am Divorced; I Can't Get Hard; I Love My Wife; I Don't Love Her; I Lie To Myself; My Mother Is Dead; I'm Rich; We Forget; I Am The Bread Winner; I Am Married; I Am A Failure; She Left Me; I'm Under Fifty; I'm Just Like My Father; I'm Nothing Like Him; I'm Over 21; I Can F***; My Kids Need Me; I'm Losing My Hair; I Need Glasses; I Am Afraid; I Love You."
That sobering litany should give the audience some idea of what they are in for, although it does not begin to describe the black depths to which the characters will have plunged before the credits roll.
Director Mark Pellington has crafted a personal, independent film with no desire to reach the largest demographic possible. Instead, its appeal is limited mainly to white American males who came of age in the late eighties—young guys who shared a taste for New Wave and Punk rock, and got high with no apologies. Yet it is more than an anthem to hedonism. The movie also conveys a clear-eyed view of the downside of attempting to obliterate sorrows and regrets—straining to forestall the inevitability of aging—with weed, coke, booze, and a potpourri of pharmaceuticals.
The tightly scripted movie (not improvised as some have asserted) was shot on location at Big Sur, almost completely in the order events take place, with a small crew using Canon 5D and 7D DSLR cameras. Quite often, three or four cameras were used at a time to capture a variety of angles. The low budget precluded the use of a large array of lights (DP Eric Schmidt pointed out that the featureless black backgrounds of the night shots were due to the lack of equipment needed to illuminate areas behind the actors). Being a small film with limited action and almost no special effects, it relies greatly on the quality of its actors to convey the film's intent.
The acting feels immediate and authentic. The naked emotion that radiates off the faces of these men as they crumble apart in the last act of the movie is almost unbearable to watch. It's only fair to give the actresses their due, even though their roles are minor. In particular, Arielle Kebbel as Randi and Carla Gugino as Officer Boyd simply shine during their limited time onscreen (Most of Gugino's material, which could have turned the second half into a police procedural, was deleted or never made it into the movie. The director jettisoned those scenes and consequently saved the film from becoming a watered-down Hitchcockian thriller.)
The disc includes an impressive slate of extras, including but not limited to trailers (redband, greenband, and international), deleted scenes, an interview with the director, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a pair of audio commentaries. The first commentary is with Director Mark Pellington, Rob Lowe, and Jeremy Piven. The second commentary is with the director, Glenn Porter (co-writer), and Eric Schmidt (director of photography). Pellington is a gracious and informative host who intelligently defends his work, and displays remarkable restraint and lack of ill will toward the critics who so thoroughly drubbed his movie. Both of the commentaries bring considerable insight into the making of the film.
I Melt With You (Blu-ray)'s 2.35:1/1080p high definition transfer is very good, considering its digital source (one cinematographer brings up the problem of shallow depth of field that occurs with the cameras they used). I could see some artefacts here and there (stair-stepping on a scene with multiple vertical lines in the background, and hair in the lower left and right frames in a couple of places). The color is bright and vivid in daytime scenes, and amazingly good in low light interiors. It is not reference-level material, but still looks good and is well-suited for the gritty subject matter. The audio is excellent overall. The worst spot is in a scene on the beach, as the actors are about to enter the water, and their voices are obscured by the surf. Pellington remarked that he hates ADR and refused to loop the dialogue (yellow subtitles were added instead).
The music soundtrack is spectacular and is a sonic surround treat for those into Punk and New Wave music from the eighties and late seventies. A few of the bands used were The Sex Pistols, Galaxy 500, Pixies, The Clash, Adam and the Ants, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Because of the amount of money demanded, The Talking Heads' "Memories Can't Wait," which was featured in the Sundance cut, had to be removed. The last tune to play at the end of the credits is a new, slowed-down arrangement of "I Melt With You" by Modern English. It's a great set of tunes that will give your surround speakers and subwoofer a muscular workout.
It's easy to compile a list of the film's shortcomings. It can be a chore, for instance, to work up much sympathy for privileged middle-class and upper-class white males tormented by their misguided lives, and the series of events that drives the movie toward Greek tragedy are cleverly constructed, but, to be charitable, highly unlikely—about as unlikely as Jonathon surviving the night after his double fistful of oxycodone, hydromorphone, and God knows what else from his mountain of pills and capsules.
Still, the movie's flaws flew right past me. I was riveted by the bleak and frenzied vision of twenty-first century American males who know they are way past the starting line and hurtling toward journey's end. Really, these guys are almost archetypes, surrogates for middle-aged white males all across America. If you reach middle age, the world has had plenty of time to beat you down, and I Melt With You does not flinch or prevaricate as it delivers that grim message with resounding finality.
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