By Gabe Toro | The Playlist December 6, 2011 at 9:58AM
If an alien race were to study our cinema, they’d realize that every man beyond the age of 40 is unhappy and suffering a mid-life crisis. For every happy, well-adjusted middle-aged man in contemporary cinema, there are three more, casually living life out of a suitcase, a bottle, or underneath a sea of unpaid bills and obligations.
“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.
A more interesting film would have explored this fascinating dichotomy. Unfortunately, “I Melt with You” simply likes its characters too much, giving legitimacy to what amounts to petty lifetime grievances. “I Melt with You” wants to have it both ways: our leads are in arrested development, beholden to the memories of high school, incapable of taking responsibility when life deals them a bad hand. It also wants to provide dramatic weight to our characters lamenting they look nothing like they did when they were younger. Which, of course, is ridiculous. We’ve seen enough movies to have realized that Rob Lowe has barely aged a day since the '80s. Thomas Jane still carries an action movie physique, and the barrel-chested Piven even looks tighter and more fit than when he burst onto the scene as a balding, slightly portly comic actor in the early '90s.
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.
There‘s no way to get around it: “I Melt with You” uses “emotional honesty” to hide behind the fact that it’s telling a very pro-drug story. These are tragic characters, needing controlled substances in order to feel joy, but the film is so committed to sharing in their debauchery that a third-act comedown never feels convincing. When a boozy Thomas Jane is able to pick up Arielle Kebbel and Sasha Grey at a bar for them to participate in some substance abuse and casual (group?) sex, the movie never drops its woozy booze-binge attitude. Contrast that with a third act shift into thriller territory, which features the film’s only substantial female character in Carla Gugino as a completely dim-witted local cop. What seems like the natural evolution from these characters’ misbehavior only seems like a reel patched in from another movie, complete with a totally random car chase.
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+]