Max Winkler’s (son of Henry, Heeeey) Ceremony is something like the 472nd film released since 1998 that you could say was heavily influenced by Wes Anderson, who is now responsible for nearly 23 percent of all film festival offerings in North America. I appreciate that Anderson’s work has had such a significant influence on the new generation of filmmakers, but one wonders why they didn’t gravitate toward a filmmaker with more box-office prowess, and one whose style wasn’t so easy to emulate. Any director working with a small budget and very little to say can sprinkle their film with a couple of literary allusions, some faux-preciousness, a little whimsy, a tic, a wink, and a soundtrack from any flittery Paul Simon wannabe and create an Anderson knock-off. But that’s just what they are: Knock-offs. And even a fake Wes Anderson label won’t sell a lot of movie tickets.
Ceremony is essentially Rushmore crossed with the anti-Graduate, sprinkled with nods to Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It stars the always likeable but lightweight Michael Angarano as Sam, a struggling children’s author (of course!). He’s self-deluded, has an inflated sense of himself marked by deep-seated insecurities, and naturally believes he’s moments away from greatness. In the opening scenes, Sam convinces his best friend Marshall (the always likable Reece Thompson) to go on an adventure slash road trip with him, and the neurotic Marshall — who has been suffering from a Baumbachian depression, locked away in his parents house since a mugging — agrees to be Sam’s patsy, his car ride and ATM, on account of the fact that Marshall is too sheltered not to believe someone who says he is on the brink of greatness is not, actually, on the brink of greatness.
A road trip between the two characters might have been interesting, but they end up instead crashing the wedding weekend of Zoe (Uma Thurman), with whom Sam once had a brief moment several years prior when Zoe mistook him for a sad little puppy dog and fucked him. As self-deluded men are wont, Sam misconstrues Zoe’s pity for love, and sets about trying to win her back from the out-sized African-wildlife documentarian caricature, Whit, played by Lee Pace (Note to filmmakers: Do not make obvious nods to your influences with your character names, you’ll only invite comparisons you can’t possibly live up to. It’s also a little lame.). Sam strings Marshall along while pursuing Zoe, who is 20 years older and a foot taller than Sam. Zoe flicks him away like a gnat, but she doesn’t squash him like she ought to because she’s a nice person and because it allows Winkler to stretch him flimsy premise to a full hour-and-a-half of whinging, self-pity, and narcissism.
There are a few, mostly superficial, bright spots to Ceremony besides Angarano and Thompson’s inherent likeability. Jake T. Johnson as Zoe’s drunken lout of a brother is brilliant and funny and deserves his own film. It’s also fun to hear Lee Pace put on an brash Irish accent, even if his character is one-dimensional. Uma Thurman is also as radiant as ever, although she’s given little to work with besides a few nose wrinkles and an impassioned “Go away” speech.
I appreciate new directors that incorporate a little whimsiquirkilcious into their romances, or who know how to tap into my soft-rock adult-alternative musical tastes, but if you’re going to sell a fake Rolex, you at least make sure it can keep time. Winkler’s Ceremony tick-tocks for about five minutes and then craps out, and all that’s left is a useless fake gold wristband that turns your wrist green.