“I Melt with You” pivots on the notion of four lifelong friends who share the same age-related anguish. The presentation is the key, as the novelty of Mark Pellington’s low budget indie is the idea that no one has ever felt this way before. Because you are a good movie soldier, and because Pellington has a sharp visual eye and a canny ear for pop music, you go with it. You run with the idea that Thomas Jane’s Richard teaches high schoolers who don’t listen to a thing he says, that Rob Lowe’s Jonathan takes patients at the doctor’s office who only require more prescriptions, and Jeremy Piven’s Ron is a wealthy broker under the pressure of a serious investigation. Christian McKay’s more openly-suffering Tim probably gets an easier pass, since his plight -- freshly alone after the departure of his wife -- seems far more universal.
Each year, the former high school friends reunite by the beach, spending time in an impossibly beautiful beach house while they overdose on medicine of the non-prescribed variety. It’s their escape: their companionship is only a vessel for them to enter this world of lesser responsibilities. While Pellington and screenwriter Glenn Porter never give you an idea of what happened every other year before this one, there is the implication that it never resurfaces in their memory, as their reunion leads to them diving headfirst into a mountain of pills and opiates. There is a bond here, but these aren’t friends, they’re enablers.
And yet, there’s a distinct, very real sadness to “I Melt with You.” Pellington overloads the film with a sensory onslaught, utilizing split screens, changing color filters and extreme close-ups to establish the druggy unease of our characters’ situation. But he can‘t wipe away Christian McKay‘s melancholic performance. As the only actor without an established screen presence, McKay is the most enigmatic of the four. By the close of the first night, each fellow drowning in substance abuse, he’s the only one taking people aside, hoping to talk about a few unresolved issues. When his introspection is brushed away, he retreats into his own subdued placidity, adding to the film’s unresolved feelings.
Which isn’t to say “I Melt with You” is without merits. Pellington’s ambition is respectable, as he uses every gimmick in the book to frame the story as an epic, universal tale, usually with booming music from any number of artists whose videos Pellington has no doubt helmed. And while the characters are not necessarily fleshed out, this indulgent acting exercise (think: improvised yelling matches and lots of vein popping) gives Jane, Lowe and Piven fresh opportunities to showcase their considerable range (though McKay, to his credit, seems different in every new role). It’s only in its familiarity that it truly does not transcend its material, leaving only its intensity. “I Melt with You” is an engaging primal scream, but it’s not a movie. [C+]