It is not uncommon for a great artist to show questionable taste in source material. Bob Dylan recorded a Christmas album in which he gurgled "Here Comes Santa Claus." T.S. Eliot developed a poetic fixation on house cats that ultimately resulted in the musical Cats. Jimmy Stewart's last cinematic role was in Fievel Goes West, as the voice of Sheriff Wylie Burp. But there is no more perplexing case of talent deployed to dubious ends than that of Gus Van Sant.
I don't need to reel off Van Sant's achievements, though it might be worth mentioning how many of them emerged from unlikely provenances: a memoir from a gay street poet in love with a Mexican boy; improvised desert conversations between Matt Damon and Casey Affleck; a YA novel about skateboarding. But such risk-taking is a double-edged sword. Van Sant's flops almost never lack ambition, but they suggest some bizarre foible in discernment. He remade Psycho shot-for-shot. He adapted Tom Robbins. He filmed the Robin Williams âItâs not your faultâ scene in Good Will Hunting.
This history shoulders its way into the mind while watching Restless. Van Sant's new movie is not nearly the debacle promised by the cruel buzz out of Cannes; instead, it is a graceful, scrupulously crafted film. But it is also a film that did not need to be made. It is about a boy who likes to attend funerals falling in love with a girl with a brain tumor, and how they are aided in their acceptance of her fate by the ghost of a kamikaze pilot. This synopsis should have been enough to end the pitch meeting. The script, by Jason Lew, does not deviate from this premise, or advance it, really: It is a thicket of adolescent bathos about dying young, seasoned with its own distinctive, ghoulish morbidity. It resurrects all the tropes of the Beatific Doomed Girl from Ali McGraw in Love Story through Mandy Moore in A Walk to Remember. But none of these terminally ill women had to recite a romantic speech about carrion beetles. In Restless, Mia Wasikowska goes on about how the beetles meet in a corpse, and how they don't just eat the corpse, but build a little home together inside the decaying flesh, and how that story has a lesson to teach us about finding love within death. This speech is a bad idea. The entire script is a bad idea.
Yet the movie is not exactly a bad movie—and I'm not just saying that in some fit of memorial-service etiquette. Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides shot in Portland during the brief autumn window—we're entering it now—when the remaining direct sunlight nearly stings. This is not incidental to Restless' effect: To the degree that it works, it is because first love almost always has a fleeting life, and feels more precious for its brevity. The restrained performances also help: Wasikowska and Henry Hopper (a chip off dad Dennis' block) are both touching because they are so matter-of-fact, while Ryo Kase turns the ghost-pilot conceit into a tangible character.
Still, there is not much about Restless that's surprising—other than it being the first teenage romance to feature a Nagasaki atom-bomb montage. It features several Sufjan Stevens songs (though, oddly, not "Casimir Pulaski Day," the one about a girlfriend who died), it includes the obligatory fights and reconciliations, and it avoids being an embarrassment while never managing to become anything else. Any indignation about Restless feels drummed-up, but the movie does suggest a flip side to Van Sant's skill: It is done well, but one is disappointed to see it done at all.
56 SEE IT: Restless opens Friday at Fox Tower and City Center.