I’m always wary of films based on memoirs or novels whose stories are episodic. These types of books are usually divided into chapters that serve as self-contained mini-stories or events in a person’s life. In a book, you enjoy reading through a series of events in a character’s life (i.e. John Steinbeck’s CANNERY ROW) because you can speed through the book or slow down to take it all in and the author can provide enough material to fully explore each event. However, when a film adapts the book, it usually has anywhere from 1 hour and 30 minutes to 2 hours to tell its story. What the film is consequently forced to give you is a summarized version of the novel that picks out the best parts of the book and tries to thread it all together with some sort of theme. I can tell you from watching MANY of these types of movies that this frequently does not work. SUBMARINE is the latest example I have seen where this fails. This is a tedious and derivative indie coming-of-age film that felt like every quirky film about teenagers that has been released since RUSHMORE came out in 1998. Although I recognized the presence of jokes, I hardly laughed during the film. I suppose that if you haven’t seen so many films like this one, then you might actually like SUBMARINE. I did not.

A festival favorite in 2010, this British comedy-drama marks the directorial debut of British comic actor Richard Ayoade (Maurice Moss in THE IT CROWD). Adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s novel, SUBMARINE tells the story of Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), who plays a 15 year old boy in the 1980’s (I think). One of the narratives of the story involves Oliver’s pursuit of Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a girl in his class that Oliver wins over by basically getting beat up for refusing to call Jordana a “massive slut.” The film’s other narrative involves Oliver’s attempt to fix his parents’ (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) troubled relationship and non-existent sex life. Oliver’s father is a depressed marine biologist and who barely says a word and never cracks a smile while his mother begins seeing a new-age mulleted guru (Paddy Considine), who used to be her ex-boyfriend.

This film’s biggest problem is that it cannot balance the comedic and dramatic elements of the story. Although funny at times, the dry, British sarcasm of the film undermines the film’s serious moments and you’re left wondering if we’re supposed to find humor in those dramatic moments. For example, Oliver’s parents’ relationship is on the rocks and Oliver is clearly distressed about this and he tries to find ways to keep his folks together. When he discovers his mother hanging out with her ex-boyfriend, Oliver feels helpless and acts out. These moments are meant to be serious, but the ludicrousness and hilarity of the idea that Oliver’s mother is seeing a 80’s shagged mulleted man who does karate during sex and who looks like a porno version of a magician makes you rethink if we shouldn’t be laughing at all this instead. In another scene, Jordana invites Oliver to her house for a Christmas dinner to meet her mother, who is dying from cancer. It is an awkward scene in which Jordana’s father gets frustrated and lashes out over the fact that his wife is possibly having her last Christmas. Again, I didn’t know how much of this scene was intended to be serious. In both of these scenes and in many others, the comedy is distracting and prevents you from sympathizing with Oliver and the other characters.

It is a bit sketchy as to what era SUBMARINE is set in. The film definitely has a 60’s vibe as to the clothing and look of it, but 80’s references pop up here and there as well. From just this description alone its obvious the film wears its detached hipster irony on its sleeve. I’m guessing the time period ambiguity is deliberate in order to make the story feel timeless. Director Ayoade, who cut his teeth doing music videos for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arctic Monkeys (front man Alex Winters provides a nice soundtrack to this film), is clearly not shy about his influences here. From the style of Wes Anderson to the French New Wave, Ayoade attempts to blend the bittersweet with the sardonic. That’s all well and good, but the film is so self-aware and its lead character is so imbued with hipster attitude and affectations that its difficult to take anything in this film seriously or to become emotionally invested in the lives of its characters.

SUBMARINE relies a lot on its young protagonist and the supporting cast. Unfortunately, nobody in this film is remotely likable. An amalgamation of Harold Chasen in HAROLD AND MAUDE and Max Fischer in RUSHMORE, the “charm” of Oliver feels so forced and unrelenting that its nearly impossible not to instantly dislike this kid. Presumably, Oliver is capable of attraction, jealously and empathetic gestures, but he shows next to none of it across his face. Whether this was how Craig Roberts was instructed to play the role or just poor judgment on the young actor’s part, his Oliver is the fatal ingredient that dooms an already over-calculated SUBMARINE from eliciting any sentiment from its audience. Its not that Craig Roberts was bad or miscast, but his interpretation of the character does not endear him to us. I never felt like he had a chance to break free and lay his heart out on the line. There is one scene at the end when he’s about to read a note to Jordana in class, but the director ends the scene right before Oliver is going to read the note.

A bit more tolerable (but not by much) is Jordana, who spends most of the film glowering at her beau as she singes his leg hair with a match and laughs when the fat girl at school is bullied. Oliver’s mom is a shallow bitch while his dad is a morose and depressing character who wallows in his own misery throughout the film. If you want quirky, funny, and likeable characters, there are far more superior coming-of-age films out there (i.e. RUSHMORE, HAROLD AND MAUDE, and JUNO).

At the same time, there is some nice shit going on in SUBMARINE. The film has a quirky, well-chosen soundtrack that nicely compliments the Wales setting and the relationship between Oliver and Jordana (there is a nice montage where the two characters cavort around and set off fires that is set to the song “Hiding Tonight” by Alex Winters). Other scenes feature a very suspenseful and dramatic score that evokes Bernard Hermann.

In the end, SUBMARINE is just another teen angst movie that tries so hard to be offbeat and quirky that it loses its heart. It basically boils down to being self-indulgent masturbation for the director where he drowns himself in freeze frames, slow-motion, and everything else he’s picked up in film school. Sometimes you get wonderful directors who come from the music video world (i.e. David Fincher). Other times, you get Richard Ayoade.

Advertisements