Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Lifeguard

"I'm not 30...I'm 29," Leigh (Kristen Bell) defensively chimes more than once in the listless and all-together dull quarter-life-crisis drama The Lifeguard.  As if a desperate cling to a youth-- one that's well beyond her-- acts for some kind of excuse for the selfish and overly entitled, bratty behavior she exhibits throughout writer/director Liz W. Garcia's wan,  irritating and smugly self-conscious debut film.   That may read as harsh, but this drippy, overly fussed and under-nourished melodrama feels akin to mediocre soap opera, a melodramatic hotbed that infuses nearly every cliché in the independent film rule book but has neither the wit nor invention to overcome its overly simplistic and familiar narrative.  The Lifeguard is a jarringly self-pitying film, one labeled as a comedy-drama, but lacking in humor or lightness of any sort and devoid of striking or original characters to maneuver through it's increasingly labored and dark twists and turns.  The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January.

Burned from her seemingly cushy Manhattan lifestyle, anguished by that strange and enigmatic only-in-the-cinema ennui that seems only to afflict pretty people in Sundance-approved movies (see also Garden State.)  The opening, obliquely scattered shots that tentatively present a fragmented young woman imply that Leigh is a lost child.  She works as a reporter for the Associated Press and clings to a man whom she will never actually have.  Her woes are externalized from the start as she relates to a story she's writing about a captive tiger chained against its will in an apartment who died from malnutrition and dehydration.  She's trapped you see, just like that tiger.
Stuck in this funk, which the film posits as some sort of deeply realized existential crisis, Leigh impulsively decides to go back home.  Not just to her parents-- a loving and still married mom and dad played by Amy Madigan and Adam LeFevre-- but back in time, before the strains of adulthood became so much.  She returns to her teenage friends and her teenage job as a local lifeguard because she's not...happy.  The biggest hurdle for The Lifeguard is that Garcia assumes that Leigh's woes are universal to the point that she never has be particularly specific.  The film becomes ultimately bland because of this and fails to connect emotionally because the characters themselves are only skin deep and quite boring.  Garcia, who previously wrote for television shows like Dawson's Creek and Cold Case, doesn't help matters with the awkwardly clipped dialogue that's free of humor or self-awareness that she's written for her actors.

Leigh is particularly obnoxious.  The film takes great measures in expressing her achievements, her intelligence (she was valedictorian of her high school) and the grand success story of her life in leaving behind her sleepy Connecticut hamlet.  That apparently went straight to Leigh's head at an early age as she drops in her family unexpected and announces she's here to stay, as well as expecting her old townie friends (including Mamie Gummer as an uptight high school guidance counselor with marital woes and Martin Starr as an oddball closeted art dealer) to drop everything in their respective lives to morph back in time, which mostly includes smoking lots of pot. 

That Leigh isn't particularly likable wouldn't be so much of an issue if she were presented in a sharper context and shaded with a hint of, well, anything other than the attractive figure cut by Bell.  The languorous stretches of The Lifeguard appear more interested in the comely actress in her red bathing suit than adding layers or flavor to her character.  There's too little to suggest anything about Leigh that's dark or troubled or searching for something-- she just vacantly stares into space.

The focal point of The Lifeguard is hinged upon the unlikely (and fairly preposterous) bond developed between Leigh and a wayward youth, precociously named Little Jason (played by David Lambert.)  He's a troubled sixteen-year-old, at once more lost and more together than Leigh-- she wants to save him and he pretty much just wants her to buy him beer and get laid.  Nothing cures adulthood blues and helps one find themselves quite like statutory rape.  And so partway through The Lifeguard, the film devolves into a strange and awkward soft-core sex romp.  The sequences are meant to pop with a passionate sizzle, but instead are merely unintentionally comical, oddly and coyly choreographed, to a degree that the body parts not on display become more jarring and distracting than the ones that are.  It doesn't help that Bell and Lambert have zero chemistry nor sexual heat.  It's all googly-eyes and a tad bit icky.

And of no consequence either.  Where the film could have at the very least illuminated with some sort of calibrated finality, instead it dissolves into the ether, exiting with tiresome and lazy platitudes, which read more and more false as the film meanders through its ill-paced, but shockingly brief running time.  It may be true that one can never truly ever go home again, but The Lifeguard makes it clear that perhaps that is a good thing in the end.  D

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