Dissecting The Spectacular Now: Coming of Age the Wrong Way

The Spectacular Now Header
The Spectacular Now,
from James Ponsoldt, is a grounded look at the coming of age story, but it comes apart when you realize it doesn’t have much depth or anything new to say in the genre.

Zac:  The lead of this story is Sutter, played by a very good Miles Teller, and he is an eighteen year old functioning (?) drunk who is grinding out the last few months of his school year. Freshly broken up with by his “awesome” girlfriend Cassidy, a wasted Brie Larson, he finds himself quickly connecting with another girl; the “awkward” Aimee.

***Warning: Spoilers Throughout***

You can kind of imagine where things go from here, and while the film doesn’t take many of the tropes you expect it to, it doesn’t really do a good job of supporting the turns it does take. It’s nice that the film isn’t filled wall to wall with pop songs and stereotypical characters, but about halfway through the movie you realize the characters it does have don’t have much to them. Shailene Woodley plays Aimee, the uncool girl who doesn’t think of herself as attractive (kind of a stretch), and she seems like she is going to be an interesting balance to Sutter, but sadly devolves into the stereotypical fawning girlfriend. To make matters worse, Aimee completely forgives Sutter for some pretty terrible stuff, which cripples their relationship to the viewer; yet the movie wants you to root for them. If the film really wanted to be grounded it shouldn’t push the myth that you end up with the high school boyfriend/girlfriend.

Lauren:  The reason it doesn’t go through some of the tropes is because it doesn’t even try that hard.  Goodness I hate this story.  How the heck did it even get chosen to be made into a movie!?

With the cast this film pulls together, I was hoping that this would at least form something somewhat better than the book, which I absolutely hated.  There’s just nothing to it.  Sutter is a drunk constantly talking about his spiked 7-Up, and though the film avoids the product placement this is still the only point to Sutter.  He is a drunk.  He has no hope, though he doesn’t realize this.  He thinks he’s cooler than he is.  And Aimee is an idiot for liking him.

Matter of fact, as much as I despise Sutter, I hate Aimee even more.  Maybe the writer of this book just hates women as he fills the pages with a story that I would imagine can only be written by someone while crying about how much they hate themselves, but Aimee has to be the weakest character ever.  And not just in the lacking depth aspect, but in the fact that she is literally the worst type of female representation there is.  Seriously, she has beaten wife syndrome or something as Sutter can do no wrong in her eyes, all the while doing everything wrong.  He forced her out of the car into oncoming traffic, which hit her!  AND SHE FORGAVE HIM!  MATTER OF FACT, SHE ACTUALLY APOLOGIZED! UGH!!!

Zac: I’m not as mad about it as you are, but I can’t disagree with anything you said. It sounds like the film doesn’t play the drunkenness up, even if they are always drinking, as much as the book, but I still think the film is almost dangerously irresponsible with its handling of underage drinking. Sure plenty of people drink and drive and get away with it, sure there are plenty of functional drunks at all ages, and sure Aimee gets hit by the car, but none of these things feel like punishment enough for the way alcohol is abused. I am perfectly fine with drinking, do whatever you want, but the characters in this film abuse it and some very impressionable people might see this and think, “look how cool Sutter is.” These people might be missing the point of the film, but I think it can be read as the “downfall” for Sutter that he loses his high school job, will probably pass summer school then might have gotten the cute girl he emotionally abused back; along with free rent for a couple months in Philly. That seems irresponsible on the parts of the filmmakers, and this is coming from the director of the excellent Smashed, one of the most realistic and honest portrayals of alcoholism put on film; that also never dips to the melodrama of this film either.

Now you got me ranting.

Lauren:  Agreed. Smashed wasn’t really for me, but I can see that it was a pretty strong representation of alcoholism. Plus Mary Elizabeth Winstead killed it.

The film actually departs from the book when it tries to make Sutter a sympathetic character in the end trying to give him redemption. The original story ends with him making best buds with older men at the bar (or driving away from said bar, can’t quite remember), and though I hated that ending at the time, I actually hate the film’s ending more. They force this happy ending on us in the hope that one crying scene will make us sympathetic to Sutter and forgive everything he’s done; sympathetic enough to then feel like he deserves Aimee now. Then again, maybe he does. She could still be the drinker he turned her into, and she is stupid enough to take him back.

Zac:  I do think a couple of the performances are pretty great though. My man Kyle Chandler is pretty devastating in his one scene in the film and seems like the most (or only) honest representation of alcoholism in the film. I didn’t like that the film uses this one interaction to propel Sutter into third act conflict, but more Kyle Chandler in everything, please. I also think Teller is really charismatic and likable as Sutter, and I think you would have been charmed by him had you not come in with your, justifiable, prejudice against the character. I hope he gets to star in more stuff where he ultimately isn’t a douche (Lauren’s note: he is the best part of the Footloose remake). Shailene Woodley is also cute as a button here, even if her character is a female doormat. Though, Aimee is like a nerd fantasy to a certain extent, and while there are plenty of cute girls who like manga and geeky stuff, I couldn’t buy that they would be so oblivious to their charms; especially one who is openly ready to drink and fuck after a fun weekend. Also, how were there zero consequences to her drinking? Was she a seasoned pro before Sutter?  Or does she have some magic protein in her body that breaks down alcohol so she can continue to thrive in every facet of her life?

Lauren:  I’d also like to point out that no way would that character have dressed the way she did in the movie, with spaghetti strap shirts and low v-necks.

 Honestly I think she should have gotten expelled or something.  It’s not like they were really hiding the fact that they were drinking on campus. Sutter being the domino that leads her to the complete ruin of this character and her dreams would have actually been a better ending (she actually does fall a little further in the book socially, but not in the above mentioned area), especially if this would have finally made her realize that she needs to run away from him as fast as she can. You’d think getting hit by a car would do that, but what do I know.

I just wish that with the happy ending they were going for, they should’ve had her leaving him to be the propellant he needed to change (if we are to believe that he actually cares about her this much considering he always seemed only half interested in the relationship). As it is, there really isn’t that strong of a reason for him to realize he needs to change on his own. This would have also warranted his nobody loves me scene, which felt completely forced on the character considering Aimee is devoted to him like a person dependent on drugs.

Even with the character flaws, I guess I can agree with your opinion of the performances. Chandler was the best, for sure, and Teller did his best to make me come around to liking the character.  But as it stands, I spent most of his scenes channeling all of my rage into not breaking focus on all of his scars because I was afraid I might start screaming at the screen seeing as the actor’s charisma isn’t enough to make up for who Sutter is.  Other than that I only really cared for Winstead as Sutter’s sister, which was not something that carried over from the book.

Zac: That’s ultimately the problem with the film, if Sutter is supposed to be a cautionary tale it never feels like it, and if he is supposed to be a tragic figure it doesn’t feel like that either. This is a problem because there is no way that the writer of the book viewed him otherwise, right? He isn’t supposed to be a heroic rogue we all strive to be like, so why does the movie leave it open to interpret it that way?

Lauren: I’m going with tragic figure in the book because he lets the girl go, not so much as “her hero” for letting her move on, but simply because he would rather remain who he is even though he understands that he is a bad influence and an irresponsible person, especially now that he’s seen the man he is becoming.  Which is why I wanted him to get in a car accident and die after leaving the bar…

Zac: For all the film’s strengths there are just too many weaknesses, whether you bring the book to the film or not. There are a lot of talented people working on this film and I really appreciated the grounded approach to the genre, but The Spectacular Now ultimately falls short of being very good as a whole. Worst of all, it might be a dangerous film for impressionable viewers, and that should never be the case.

Lauren:  [Angry grumbles about there being nothing spectacular about it].

Zac’s Final Grade: C-
Lauren’s Final Grade: D

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5 thoughts on “Dissecting The Spectacular Now: Coming of Age the Wrong Way

  1. You guys have no idea how happy I am that I found this review. I saw this movie at the SF Film Festival in April and was completely disappointed, especially after all the hype that it received at Sundance. Now that it’s playing at the theaters and I read critics’ positive reviews, I was *almost* tempted to watch it again to see if I missed something.

    I also read the book prior to watching the film and while the book left a bad taste in my mouth, how the movie handled the ending really made me angry. Portraying Sutter as some sort of noble idiot for breaking up with Aimee “for her own good” is total BS and doesn’t even make narrative sense. Sutter is the type of who never puts himself in another person’s shoes, he’s that immature and bratty, and we’re supposed to believe that in the last 5 minutes of the movie he suddenly had a change of heart? I would have preferred that they stuck with how the book ended, with Sutter totally wasted and driving into oblivion.

    And don’t even get me started on Aimee’s character. I know Shailene Woodley is Hollywood’s “It Girl” of the moment and she was probably just portraying what the script called her to do, but it feels like the Aimee in the book is a completely different girl. Like you said, there’s no way she will wear plunging V-necks and spaghetti straps or talk the way Shailene did in the movie. Yes, she was a extremely weak and vulnerable in the book but she seemed flat out stupid in the movie. Argh.

    Anyhow, I must stop now. Thank you for this review!

    1. Thanks for reading.

      I to am baffled by the reviews, as people finding it such a “sweet and honest” tale leave me dumb founded.
      I do like the promise of the actors, but I think people are letting the actors blind them from some bad characters. Ugh…

  2. All I can say is. How in hell does this movie have a rating of above 5/10 stars on imdb.

    Literally, the whole movie was a weird sob story, romance, “get away from me, I’m not good enough for you” piece of crap.

    And then there was a nice little philosophical plug-in with the college app right before the world’s worst ending to a movie, ever.

    I kept watching because the whole time I was thinking, “Everyone seems to like it. Maybe it has some kind of life-changing ending.”

    Boy was I wrong.

    Actors? A-okay. Shailene Woodley is great, so is Miles Teller.
    Plot? Come on.

  3. Had to tell Google exactly what I wanted- Haters of The Spectacular Now. You guys say out loud precisely what I felt throughout the film 🙂 . If that’s what ‘Real’ American teens are like, God save the US! Sat through the entire movie when I could’ve watched some classic romcom on V-day, hoping that at some point I would see the depth that got the movie such rave reviews. Could’ve spent those 1.5 hours in some more fulfilling unproductive work :/

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