“Restless” tosses and turns with dark schmaltz

Restless movie review

Gus Van Sant sets his indie sense-ometer to sap for the Ron and Bryce Dallas Howard-produced Restless, a moody romantic drama that charts the brief relationship between a terminally ill Mia Wasikowska and a death-obsessed Henry Hopper, the latter an immature funeral crasher whom Wasikowska’s Annie bails out during a confrontation with a suspicious funeral director. Hopper’s Enoch warms to the sunny, unoffendable Annie, and the two begin a delicate dance, in turn showing off and embracing one another’s peculiarities, like Enoch’s supposed friendship with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot and Annie’s obsession with Darwin.

If it sounds more precious than you can bear, you better leave immediately, even if Annie and Enoch do make for a compelling odd couple: one a bubbly optimist on the verge of death and the other a plaintive pessimist spared death in a drunk-driving accident that claimed his parents’ lives. Their perspectives should be mutually exclusive, but their shared rye sense of humor and willingness to escape reality, be it in Enoch’s doomed Battleship matches with kamikaze Hiroshi or Annie’s plunge into the minutiae of insect biology, allow their relationship to blossom in the final months of Annie’s life. It’s all about casting with these death’s-door romantic dramas, and Wasikowska and Hopper sell their awkward chemistry well on their way to the movie’s final lesson. Love conquers all, appreciate what you have, live life to the fullest, etc, etc.

It’s the little details that will decide just how unbearably twee it is for you. The pair have a full conversation with Enoch’s dead parents. They take fencing lessons and ride bikes in period attire in a mid-film montage. They play-act a dramatic death scene for Annie. Tolerance for this dark schmaltz won’t even be the deciding factor when your sense of taste is assaulted by the presence of Hiroshi, whose ignorance of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (he died before that) is exploited for a cheap chuckle, then pity just seconds after. Whether we’re supposed to laugh or cry at the image of a Japanese man sitting silently in a bathtub after viewing stock footage of an atom bomb’s detonation, it’s a ghastly emotional tactic, particularly in the context of a story whose protagonists make light of a death to distract from its imminence. There’s no need to drag Hiroshi into their game unless it serves to correct their behavior, and it doesn’t. It’s just cruel. This moment plays like many others that come and go for no real reason. Annie’s mom is an alcoholic New Ager for some reason. Enoch’s suspended from school for attacking a bully for some reason.

Jason Lew’s script indulges the cutesiness of Annie and Enoch’s rapport, but it takes its sweet time getting to the cracks in their understanding of one another, rushing into a condensed third act after a particularly contrived argument. Van Sant brings some needed energy to the story, shifting quickly between scenes on the back of a carefully curated bittersweet soundtrack. For all the fluffy dialogue and blatant symbolism he’s made to deal with, he’s able to give us something visually appealing to make up for it, with dirty dishwater tones and a pinch of lower middle class graininess to ground the love story lest we forget what’s about to happen to Annie. At the very least they don’t sugarcoat her fate, but battered by the deflective humor of its protagonists, it’s hard to feel anything strongly at the end, other than the sense that you’ve seen this done before better.

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