By Tom Nixon
Shot on 16mm in oppressively grainy black and white, its many many neuroses bleeding directly into the aesthetic, The Color Wheel presents modern post-grad America as a shark tank in which one can easily become savaged, lost or forgotten. By turns naturalistic, scathingly deadpan and outright absurdist, it reinvigorates — or rather, destabilises — the aimless 20-somethings finding themselves sub-genre that’s plagued indie cinema over the past several years, sidestepping “mumblecore” and generic romantic comedy formulae in favour of something altogether more original and daring. Perry has masterminded a rug-pulling bastardisation of cinema’s past (from La Nouvelle Vague to the likes of Jerry Lewis and Vincent Gallo, both of whom Perry cites as specific influences) to challenge its present; a loose, spontaneous succession of road trip, screwball, rom-com, comedy-of-awkwardness, slapstick and coming-of-age tropes streak across his screen, only to burn up in the alienated, oddball perspectives of the two leads at its centre, as well as the lightning chemistry literally crackling in the air between them.
J.R. (the wonderful Carlen Altman) is ditched by her sleazy professor and enlists her reluctant half-brother Colin (played by the director himself) to help her move out. He’s the only one left in the family who doesn’t hate her (or so he claims) for being a narcissistic loser — a wannabe news anchor who can barely complete a confident sentence, waiting for a dream job offer that’s never going to arrive — probably because he might be deemed a go-nowhere slacker himself, development arrested, clumsily validating his own failures and deriving most of his pleasure from racist jokes or playing with his toys.
They’re smart kids, but the world doesn’t reward their kind of smart, and so they hide behind their unrealistic dreams, feeble rationalisations and a dense barricade of ironic distance. The pathetic pair embark on a mid-Atlantic road trip characterised by withering put-downs, candid reminiscences, alliances against various common foes, and blossoming innuendo. After they bond through a series of encounters with types more successful than they are (at least by conventional standards), it’s clear J.R. didn’t need Colin to share her physical load but psychological. (SPOILER ALERT) By the conclusion they’ll be sharing another kind of load, as the pressures and needs they’ve been carrying around together bubble over in explosive, devastating fashion. (/SPOILER ALERT)
The camera mushes up in between J.R. and Colin and feeds off their simultaneous resentment and co-dependence, letting us witness with queasy first-hand intimacy the practiced way they use one another as focal points for sorting through and reinforcing their damaged psyches. Everybody is initially dislikeable to the nth degree — describe the dysfunctional duo as pathetic and petty and cruel, obnoxious or confrontational or delusional, and you wouldn’t be far wrong — but Perry’s capacity to place us inside their shared (if not always concordant) mindset means they become the good guys pretty fast, even if we don’t notice until the end. Their behaviour may be somewhat caricaturised and often downright unpleasant, but it remains a transparent web of defence-mechanisms recognisable to any intelligent, vulnerable young adult, searching for their place in a world that defines success in infuriatingly shallow terms. This gradual recognition grants them a human touch which escapes the parade of self-satisfied institutional/career-oriented drones who cross their path, not to mention most other films of this type, which tend to sacrifice lived-in specificity in their zeitgeist-pandering desperation to represent Generation Y.
A number of the film’s immediate contemporaries evoke empathy for mean-spirited, insincere characters — Rick Alverson’s The Comedy and Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse perhaps the best among them – but none achieve such giddy ecstasy as The Color Wheel. What these films share is an understanding that irony may be the most tragic of all humankind’s inventions, the ultimate symptom of our self-induced disconnection from reality. There’s nothing sadder, they suggest, than having to re-contextualise your life and the people in it as beneath your sardonic scorn, so they can’t sap at your self-worth anymore. From this bleak outlook only sympathy can follow, but Perry’s tonal control is so masterful that when The Color Wheel ostensibly gets real with an indescribably well-structured long-take, we’re singularly disarmed in discovering the extent of built up affection for these characters, pouring out despite the shocking transgression of their act.
The nagging throb that’s been there all along explodes into a rush of astonishing liberation, discarding societal norms entirely and temporarily purging an entire generation of its deep-rooted defences and rationalisations, allowing a rare moment of naked, unfiltered connection — though it cannot and must not be sustained after journey’s end, for all our sakes. Perry understands that irony is a tragic necessity in modern America, especially for those too discerning to countenance sincerity amid a numbingly superficial contemporary culture — unable or unwilling to live up to societal/familial expectations, attain financial or romantic security, or even acquire a sense of purpose or certainty. His film reveals itself to be a gesture of camaraderie toward all these bright, lost, messed up 20-somethings slipping through his nation’s cracks, each of whom needs more than another generic soul-searching road trip to help them fight their way through the grain.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.