In Ceremony, the first feature from 26-year-old director Max Winkler, 30-something Zoe (Uma Thurman)’s 23-year-old ex-“mister,” fledgling author of slightly too violent children’s literature Sam (Michael Angarano), dupes his neurotic, shell-shocked childhood friend Marshall (Reece Daniel Thompson) into helping him crash her impending wedding party so that he can offer her a romantic “counter-proposal.” Alas, this will prove difficult given that Zoe’s longtime fiancé, tall, rich, handsome Whit (Lee Pace), is well aware of her and Sam’s illicit paramour-turned-epistolary flirtation, and frankly, he doesn’t see the “boy” as all that much of a threat.
Although its premise is familiar, and a perennial staple of the romcom genre, Winkler outfits his film with a number of highly perceptive subversions of its tenets, as well as two amusingly neurotic characters: Sam, the highly mannered, pathologically lying, ultra-writerly goofball; and Marshall, the recent sufferer of a nervous breakdown, who seems to live in a waking “anxiety dream,” spends most of the film looking for his shoes, and can’t help but relate his many embellished woes to anyone who will listen. Some of the funniest scenes in Ceremony consist of Sam and Marshall’s rambling, uncomfortably cerebral discussions of their thought/behavioral patterns; as Marshall has recently begun seeing a psychologist, their banter plays out like therapeutic consultations, directly addressing their respective “harmatias” from which the film’s conflicts emanate. In this sense, Winkler plays on the viewer’s romcom-spectatorship-ingrained expectations of indirectly expository dialogue.
He also offers a refreshing revision of another character inseparable from the genre, the black sheep sibling: self-destructive, druggy, perpetually just-beaten-up Teddy (Jake Johnson, delivering a fine performance and making more than the most of what he’s been given), who comprises Zoe’s remaining family. When he is saved from drowning in a later scene by Marshall, Zoe screams at and attacks him, regarding his near-death experience not as a moment of joy and relief, but as a tragedy of a different hue: a reminder that he has already destroyed himself and that a more complete destruction would be little more than an afterthought. But then there’s Zoe, the kind of character who, in order to be recognizable as one, requires extensive exegeses on the part of her friends and loved ones. I can’t help but feel that the sparsity of ‘brushstrokes’ in her characterization might owe in some part to a noncommittal and, as a result, uninteresting performance by the usually dependable Thurman. It’s not surprising that Sam and Marshall discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald throughout the film, as Zoe could be seen as a distant relative of Daisy Buchanan: more memorable as “the ghost that haunted Gatsby” than as a living, breathing character in her own right.
Pace’s cartoonishly smarmy performance, though it may err on the side of ‘cruel antagonism,’ strongly conveys the self-obsessed dandyism of Whit, yet Winkler still sees fit to employ a number of gratuitous tactics for pushing the point further: he forces Whit to pad around through most of the first act in an absurd mauve scarf; subjects the viewer to copious footage from his grandiloquent, self-serving anthropological documentaries; and even tacks on a prominently displayed self-portrait styled after Richard Avedon’s iconic images of The Beatles, the lattermost being especially annoying, as it’s something of a really old, unfunny joke. Furthermore, the choice to include as bland a stock character as Sam’s main competition can also be regarded as easy: to craft a cruel and unlikeable character, but one to whom Zoe might be naturally compelled — and the viewer will never really buy that she is ready to forgo Sam’s wide-eyed, goofy romantic and ‘take the plunge’ with Whit — would have made for a less effortlessly resolved conflict, but this would have required more work.
While his depictions of upper-class bacchanal are nearly as perceptive as Fitzgerald’s, capturing both the emotional volatility and ostensible profundity of ephemeral social interactions as utterly meaningless save for their relationship to alcohol, Winkler’s eye or, if you prefer, ear for detail in the construction of characters is wanting. While Sam could have easily been a bland “amalgam” — to quote one of the character’s clumsy literary pontifications on this subject — of Holden Caulfield, Harold Chasen, and Benjamin Braddock (or just another Max Fischer knockoff), Angarano infuses his character with a puppy-like helplessness and does not shy away from playing sad, pathetic foil to Whit’s far more impressive and cruel-for-being-so-grown-up-and-independent anti-villain.