Finally—a mumblecore movie that seems to be aware of how insufferable its characters are! J.R. (Carlen Altman), the figure (one hesitates to call her a heroine) at the center of Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, is passive-aggressive, needy, willfully awkward, borderline hostile in her quirkiness. She’s the reverse image of the Manic Pixie type that has become such a cliché in movies about young people, or, rather, she’s its logical extension, the Manic Pixie as monster. In a strange twist, J.R.’s monstrosity makes her far more tolerable and worthy of our compassion than, say, Natalie Portman in Garden State. She’s a curious, off-putting character, and she sets this strange little film on edge from the beginning.
It’s one of the cleverer and sharper features to bear the identifying markers of mumblecore, the recent trend of ultra-low-fi films largely made by, about, and for directionless hipster types. Recent mumblecore films have attempted—with varying degrees of success—to take on such issues as mortality and responsibility (Miranda July’s The Future), relationship drama (Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation), sexual curiosity (Lynn Shelton’s Humpday), and the plight of the budding artist (Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture). While the characters in these films often cultivate an air of ironic minimalism, the films themselves tend to play things more or less straight. The Color Wheel puts us at a slightly greater distance from its characters than many of these other films. It’s also more willing to make those characters slightly more arch, more grotesque, and nastier. As seen in a party sequence late in the film, these young people are revealed to fall into one of two camps: the goonish losers whose professional and personal lives are a mess or the entitled, bitchy yuppies who mock them. (Viewers who prefer their films populated by “likable” characters should stay away from this one.)
The plot, such as it is, involves J.R.’s enlistment of her schlubby, nasal-voiced brother (played by Perry) to help her move her stuff out of the apartment she had been sharing with her professor-cum-boyfriend. Being a road movie, the trip takes a series of comic detours: a night at a sleazy motel owned by a Bible-thumping proprietor, in whose presence brother and sister must pass as husband and wife; an impromptu gathering that becomes a sexually charged high school reunion; and a visit to the family cabin, where the vaguely incestuous tensions hinted at in the earlier scenes come to a head. While arresting, these last sequences feel gratuitous and heavy, and don’t seem of a piece with the rest of the movie’s casually aggressive tone. It’s impossible to say what function such an ending serves, beyond potentially baiting the viewer into a state of confused shock. Nevertheless, The Color Wheel has considerably more personality and narrative momentum than many of its predecessors; it moves along at a good clip, and it’s likely to inspire more bemused smirks (along with some head-scratching) than groans of annoyance.