Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Movie Review: The Discovery

The Discovery ** / *****
Directed by: Charlie McDowell.
Written by: Justin Lader & Charlie McDowell.
Starring: Jason Segel (Will), Rooney Mara (Isla), Robert Redford (Thomas), Riley Keough (Lacey), Jesse Plemons (Toby), Mary Steenburgen (Interviewer), Ron Canada (Cooper), Richard O'Rourke (Marvin), M.J. Karmi (Janice), Paul Bellefeuille (Pat Phillips), Adam Khaykin (Oliver).
The key ingredient to the films of Charlie Kaufman – as both writer and director – than many of his imitators miss is humor.  If you are going to dive headlong into the human mind, and explore it, and identity, and what makes us human the way Kaufman does, you at least have to have the ability to laugh about it a little bit – that laughter will make the heady stuff go down easier. Charlie McDowell’s last film, The One I Love, which starred Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a couple who go to a cabin to try and repair their marriage, and find, well, something interesting there – had that humor, which is why that film remains an underseen gem. His new film, The Discovery, doesn’t have it – which is why the film is a morose bore.
The film takes place a few years after Thomas (Robert Redford) has scientifically proven that there is an afterlife – which has led to millions of suicides worldwide. Thomas doesn’t much care – he has retreated from the world, and now lives on a large compound with his son, Toby (Jesse Plemons) and his “followers”. Proving there is an afterlife isn’t enough for Thomas – he now wants to prove just exactly where it is we go after we die.
Yet, Thomas isn’t the main character in the film. That is Will (Jason Segel) – Thomas’ other son, estranged from him for a few years, now returning home, for reasons that never really become clear. On the fairy that leads to the small island where his father lives, he meets Isla (Rooney Mara), who is whatever the depressed version of a manic pixie dream girl is. The two hit it off, but go their own ways why they reach the island – but the next day, it is Will who comes to Isla’s rescue when she tries to commit suicide. He brings her back to the compound, where she’s interested in Thomas’ work – and decides to stay – as does Will.
The Discovery is a film that tackles big themes, but makes the mistake in thinking that because it does so, it has to be morose the whole time. Segel, primarily known as a comedic actor, but desperate to change that (his first step was in his not bad performance as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, seems to think that being a serious actor requires you to be joyless in each and every scene you’re in. His Will is a monotone bore. The rest of the cast is better – Mara’s Isla doesn’t have much depth, but she gives her some anyway, and I quite liked Redford, who doesn’t sell you that what he’s saying is real, but does sell you on the fact that he believes it. Riley Keough, so good in American Honey last year, is very good in a small role her as well.
The Discovery also tries hard to stack one narrative twist and turn on top of another, so that by the time the end comes – which is specifically designed to blow your mind – you’re on to the films tricks, and they no longer work on you. I think that McDowell is a talented writer/director – The One I Love showed that – but The Discovery is a pretty big misfire for him. The film was is desperate need of some humor – or some life.

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