Its not that I hate L.A.—its just that something about that citys tendency for self-mythologizing irks me in a way that New York Citys doesnt. (Yes, I am perpetuating that old American binary.) So a deeply L.A. movie, like the Cannes main competition entry Under the Silver Lake—named for the Los Angeles neighborhood recently passed through by hipsters and now riddled with yoga studios (well, part of it, anyway) and airy restaurants—is not likely to be something that I can connect with. Ill admit to that petty bias up front. Apologies to my dear friends and family who live out there, but sometimes, I just dont get the appeal.
That said, there is much in David Robert Mitchells film thats worthy of criticism, no matter where you live. (Chicago? Thats a place, right?) A neo-noir with a surrealist bent, Under the Silver Lake is a shaggy-dog story whose goofy rambling touches on some dark, gross stuff. Synthesizing shades of Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch, Mitchell has made a stylish, occasionally intriguing film, by turns idiosyncratically funny and downright scary. But he says and shows a lot of bothersome things throughout, which Im not quite sure how to approach. Is Mitchell being winking and self-aware about all of the movies bad male bullshit? Or is some part of it—too much of it—presented without irony? I hope its the former, but suspect its the latter.
Andrew Garfield, rumpled of hair and drawn of face, plays Sam, an unemployed slacker perilously late on his rent who spends his time smoking cigarettes on his deck, spying on women with his binoculars, playing video games with a friend (Topher Grace), and masturbating to a beloved old copy of Playboy, among various other analog visual aids. There are melancholy hints that Sam once had ambition, but its been baked out of him by the basin sun. Now hes a listless layabout, haunted by childhood passions that, wouldnt you know it, come in handy once Under the Silver Lakes mystery gets going.
Though Sam is a slouch, he still looks like Andrew Garfield, so beautiful women often throw themselves at him. (I assume thats why, anyway?) But only one girl really catches his fancy: Sarah (Riley Keough), a downstairs neighbor, whos sunny with a secret. They spend one fateful evening together—having a drink and getting stoned, Sam falling in love in the mysterious way straight men tend to fall in love with women theyve just met in movies like this (as much as there are other movies like this). Well, maybe love is overstating it. Hes at least infatuated, and when Sam finds Sarah suddenly gone the next day, her apartment emptied out (he crawls through a window) and no trace of a forwarding address, he embarks on a curious journey through the east-ish side of town to track her down.
The films world is stuffed to the gills with peculiar details. Mitchell crafts a whole underground mythology of secret codes delivered and deciphered through pop-culture ephemera and L.A. geography. The film is a bit of an odd cousin of the recent Ready Player One, as both protagonists particular nerdy boy obsessions prove the key to solving a big puzzle. In Ready Player One, that reverence for arcana was treated sincerely. But in Under the Silver Lakes case, there might be more of a smirk. Is Mitchell making fun of the way a certain subset of mostly white, young-ish men hold the cultural items they like to be the most important, most foundational pieces of culture in the world? He might be, in which case I can forgive the film for some of its smugness. If Mitchell is going to bat for all of us exhausted by that particular hegemony, bully for him.
But theres a fair chance hes not. A lot of Under the Silver Lake seems decidedly pleased with its cleverness—certainly having a laugh at Sams expense, but still installing him as something of an everyman hero. One could look at the films treatment of its women, a bevy of leggy young beauties who dont get much in the way of character development, and have a debate about how much of that is for real, too. Even if its not, though, at a certain point, commentary simply becomes content. Mitchell may be sidelining and objectifying his female characters with the noble intention of critique—of male entitlement, of Los Angeles lookism—but hes still sidelining, still objectifying.
Which may sound rigid and humorless, I realize. Its certainly not Mitchells fault that yesterday I spent time trying to parse another male filmmakers tedious navel-gazing. Still, I walked out of Under the Silver Lake annoyed that the person and, in a way, the values it centers on, feel so unnecessary at the moment.
Garfield is great in the role, doing nimble, subtle bits of physical comedy and teasing out the creepy, menacing side of Sam, glimpsed most startlingly in a few outbursts of violence. But I wasnt rooting for him by any means. And some of that creepiness seems born of a different, more troubling place. Sam has one monologue in particular, about hating the homeless, that I guess is supposed to show the imperfect facets of our lead character, but that instead comes across as Mitchell going on a bratty, defiantly politically incorrect rant of his own. Theres a good deal of that infused into the film, a personal frustration permeating the membrane of the films artifice in unpleasant ways.
Really, though, Under the Silver Lakes most easily definable problem is a simple one: its a little dull. There are moments when something frightening happens, or the mystery takes on an interesting new dimension, and the movie gets its blood up, pulling us along on its weird investigation with renewed energy. But then, the film stops for another noodling of an idea or digression that goes nowhere, and the heat is lost again. Im sure plenty of people will happily find themselves on the movies wavelength, whether theyre Angelenos familiar with, and endeared to, its languid patois and mood, or theyre old-millennial straight guys who are thrilled to finally, finally see themselves reflected on-screen. I couldnt get there, Im afraid. If anything, while being here in Cannes is lovely, Under the Silver Lake sure did make me miss New York.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Cannes Film Festival 2018: The Must-See LooksRichard LawsonRichard Lawson is a columnist for Vanity Fair's Hollywood, reviewing film and television and covering entertainment news and gossip. He lives in New York City.