Extremely personal films can prove problematic. In general, art can serve very well as a form of expression and catharsis, with the medium of film catering to this cause with particular success due to its multi-sensory stimulation. But when an individual’s emotional release begins to overwhelm or even engulf the story, it doesn’t make for exceptionally good entertainment. "The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had with My Pants On," – helmed by first timer Drew Denny, who also wrote, produced and stars in the film – is a beautifully shot and well-acted piece that is unfortunately marred by heavy-handedness and a lack of relatable characters. And what could be a wholly poignant and involving reconstruction of Denny’s own experience coping with the loss of her father slowly becomes an enmeshed, uninviting and distant self-reflection.
Andy (Denny) is driving east from Los Angeles to honor her father’s final request: she will scatter his ashes at various points en route to Austin, then give whatever’s left of his remains to her mother, a recent recovering addict who lives there with her sponsor. This difficult task is somewhat lightened by the presence of high school chum Liv (Sarah Hagan), an actress with an audition in Austin, and her dog, Chloe, who offer support, insight and excessively cute close up shots (of Chloe, not Liv).
The travelers stop in the Mojave Desert, Arizona, and on the shoulder of Route 66, and each layover gives Andy the opportunity to say goodbye in a different way: she chucks her father’s ashes into the wind (and they fly right back in her face, prompting the morbidly hilarious line, "I think I just ate some of my dad"), sprinkles them over a cliff and buries them under a rock inscribed with his initials. And yet, these impromptu memorials offer little to no solace. Rather, Andy seems too content to ignore reality, and an initial vulnerability peeks through her shakily indifferent and carefree veneer less and less. With a character so averse to feeling her emotions, the headlong crash into despair and grief she refuses to accept is inevitable. Combined with the fact that neither lead warrants much investment from the audience, this predictability makes the drive toward that moment fairly dull.
And it could have been so beautiful, too. The spectacular vistas of the southwest – striated mountains, scrubby green bushes that set off the red of the desert rocks, sloping white sand dunes and powder blue skies filled with puffy clouds – are captured with understated elegance by cinematographer Will Basanta and initiate a celebration of untouched wilderness that, sadly, doesn’t make it past the first act. Amidst the main storyline about dealing (or not dealing) with death was the potential for an interesting commentary on man versus nature and where the two meet. But that chance is squandered when endless shots of Andy and Liv inside the car with their hair blowing dramatically out the window are favored instead. Grieving is a process, and while that process can be gradual and introspective, the excess of these qualities in a static, ugly location (like a car) is incredibly alienating. Denny is working out her pain onscreen, and though that event has massive capacity for creative impact, its overpowering presence instead leads to a result that’s painful to watch.
The source of the elongated title is revealed when Andy quotes her father, a Vietnam vet. When she was younger, he would tell her, "killing someone was the most fun he ever had with his pants on." Liv, responding to her friend’s laughter at the irreverent story, says, "that’s messed up." Though small, this interchange is crucial in establishing the women’s personae: the reactionary and the conciliatory traditionalist, the "bad girl" and the "good girl," diametrically opposed from the outset. Andy has always been difficult, lashing out against her strict father and absentee mother with piercings, tattoos and criminal behavior; despite Sapphic proclivities, she makes quick friends with local boys in a rundown bar. Liv, on the other hand, is prim and virginal (she has a large-eyed, purse-sized pooch for crying out loud), and even a dare won’t make her behave badly. Her attempts at seduction and shoplifting fall so flat, and Andy’s glee in challenging her to be rebellious is so foreseeably antagonistic, that they do little to shade either character with complexity or surprise.
Denny clearly knows her film history, but the peppering of historical references in 'Fun Pants' serves to distract and diminish from her text rather than imbuing it with meaning. A series of noir-inspired sequences where Liv and Andy act out scenes related to the former’s audition are shot in superb Super 16 black and white, but feel out of place here: the actresses’ parodies of Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck would be right at home in "Sin City." Similar dissonance arises across the film, as in the use of split-screen instead of the typical shot-reverse shot that hearkens the technique in "Persona," or when Andy dons a costume reminiscent of Jeanne Moreau’s cross-dressing ensemble in "Jules and Jim." These homages are cheaply done and mostly miss the tone of this contemplative, private movie, leaving it out in the cold when comparisons arise.
'Fun Pants,' which also sports hints of "Easy Rider" and "Thelma and Louise" – but without the knowable camaraderie or dramatic payoffs of either – has a promising dual buddy film-road movie premise, but fails to deliver anything exciting or original along the way. The trope of self-discovery in the desert wears thin quickly, and the parade of knitted brows, teary eyes and pouty mouths, set to solar flares and blowing winds, does nothing to make it last longer. 'Fun Pants' concludes precisely where you think it will, but long after you’re done with the journey. [C-]