Review: Generation Um… (2012)

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Cast: Keanu Reeves, Adelaide Clemens, Bojano Novakovic
Director: Mark Mann
Country: USA
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: Generation Um… opens in limited release tomorrow, May 3rd, and is now available on demand. If you’ve already seen the film we’d love to hear your thoughts on it, or if you’re looking forward to seeing it this weekend, please tell us in the comments section below or in our new Next Projection Forums.

If the impact of a film is to be measured solely in terms of its success in emulating the psychological state of its characters, then there’s a case to be made for Mark Mann’s Generation Um… as one of the year’s most resoundingly effective movies. Yet few could argue convincingly for Mann’s feature debut as anything of the sort, its minimalistic narrative—tracing the path of a lost-in-life man and his two equally aimless female companions through a regular day in New York City—less the stuff greatness than it is of navel-gazing nonsense. Indulging his artier inclinations, Keanu Reeves stars alongside Adelaide Clemens and Bojana Novakovic, each playing characters who strive, seemingly in vain, to find themselves amidst the hectic chaos of modern life.

Slow zooms pull out, and back in again, on Reeves decadently devouring a cupcake; shots follow hands in extreme close-up as they raise a bottle to a mouth and back down again; dialogue is dropped mid-sentence as scenes cut to the snoring form of a slumbering girl: Mann time and again indulges in the sort of pseudo-intellectual gimmickry as likely to frustrate viewers as it is unlikely to give them any actual insight into the characters they observe.

generation3Were the film even a tenth the psychological treatise it likes to think itself, it might be ten times the movie it is: Mann’s work is beset by a staggering self-confidence, not an undesirable quality in a debut director but one wholly inappropriate here as he subjects us to shot after shot, scene after scene, of whiffling inanity masquerading as incisive depth. Slow zooms pull out, and back in again, on Reeves decadently devouring a cupcake; shots follow hands in extreme close-up as they raise a bottle to a mouth and back down again; dialogue is dropped mid-sentence as scenes cut to the snoring form of a slumbering girl: Mann time and again indulges in the sort of pseudo-intellectual gimmickry as likely to frustrate viewers as it is unlikely to give them any actual insight into the characters they observe. Its only successes arrive courtesy of its score by Fall on Your Sword, a burgeoning composing collective whose excellent work has similarly elated films the like of Nobody Walks; their work is good enough to supply the ears the emotion and elegance of which the eyes are consistently starved.

Perhaps the best comparison to the film comes in the form of last year’s The Comedy, which similarly saw fit to pare back the apathy and disaffection of aimless thirty-somethings adrift in the modern world. That was a film that, likewise, replicated the sense of stilted abandon of which these characters’ worldview was composed, reflecting their endless sardonicism back upon them and using it as a tool by which to expose the sad emptiness of their existences. Generation Um… has no such deftness to its storytelling, asking us to do all the work as Mann traces these figures in their constant traipses about the city. There comes a point, essentially comprising the opening of the second act—insofar as so loose an assemblage of scenes can be said to constitute anything approaching a traditional narrative, with typical acts—where Reeves’ character steals a camera from some street performers, using it throughout the rest of the film to record increasingly intimate confessionals from his friends. There’s a modicum of intrigue therein as film-within-a-film becomes film, actor becomes director, and the documentary confessions of characters within a diegesis becomes our way of understanding them within the context of a fiction feature, but nothing Mann does ever develops this conceit beyond the level of vague conception.

…its innumerable drawbacks make only more abrasive the faux-commentary: it’s absurd to think a film so endlessly empty could lay claim to any sort of authority on the wider world.

generation4One of the most prominent—and indeed most deserved—complaints levelled at Killing Them Softly was that the lack of subtlety with which its socio-political message was hammered home undid the impact of the insight. Generation Um…, populated with Obama soundbites and overheard conversations on background radios, suffers from much the same difficulty, with the additional issue that it hasn’t even an entertaining story or engaging direction to fall back on. Reeves is no Brad Pitt, Mann is no Andrew Dominik, and neither manages to make of their movie anything more than an emptily philosophising bore. Indeed its innumerable drawbacks make only more abrasive the faux-commentary: it’s absurd to think a film so endlessly empty could lay claim to any sort of authority on the wider world.

In Side by Side, Reeves helps in lamenting the decline of celluloid: in the good old days, the documentary tells us, you had to make every shot count, put every precious foot of film to good use. The digital age brings both the benefit of the ability to record to our hearts’ content, and the drawback of that being put to use ad nauseam. Mopishly meandering through this aimless non-story, Reeves concisely summates all aspects of the latter, the camera never ceasing to record no matter how disinteresting the material. Mann very much establishes him as a self-cipher, actor becoming director in a self-referential play on the filmmaking process that seems, if even for a minute, to make the film made of more than it really is. How foolish a thought: like its characters, vainly striving to make some sense of their lives, Generation Um… is clueless as to what to do with itself, floating idly along toward its virulent, vapid end.

[notification type=”star”]32/100 ~ AWFUL. Like its characters, vainly striving to make some sense of their lives, Generation Um… is clueless as to what to do with itself, floating idly along toward its virulent, vapid end.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.