The opening credits of Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel use the same swollen font the first edition of Portnoy's Complaint had on its front cover. That's no accident: Both works are young men's épater le bourgeois things. You think Philip Roth's hero had a troubled home life? Get a load of Colin (played by the director), who talks like Winnie the Pooh on an eight-ball. He opens the movie using racial jokes to persuade his girlfriend to give him a quickie, and minutes later tries to convince a backwoods motel clerk that he and his gorgeous sister JR (Carlen Altman) are actually a married couple, in no danger of violating the establishment's anti-incest policies. Of course that gets us to thinking about Colin and JR in exactly that way, and of course that's what the director wants stuck in our heads. In the next shot, he vomits.
"You've always been a hot commodity in the world of perverts," Colin tells his sis, in one of many ambiguously affectionate put-downs delivered in cramped spaces, as the two of them travel from Vermont to Boston to pick up her things from a journalism-prof ex. Somewhere, a scold is already damning Perry for taking the first step in normalizing the love that shares the same last name, and that sad puritan might or might not have a point. Certainly, The Color Wheel reminded me that Lolita is a road-trip book. This movie has the sunglasses, the jaded scavengers, and a roadside diner where the servers offer a hamburger with candles stuck in it, as they sing: "Happy birthday, dear patron."
The movie is somewhat funny and very discomfiting when it stays that intimately droll. (Its cringe factor makes Girls look like 2 Broke Girls.) It's most hapless when it tries to be overtly shocking—in that way it's like JR, who moans a bored "Ooh la la" with all the sophistication of Shirley Temple. But The Color Wheel is more often so creepily artless that it startles. Shot in black-and-white 16 mm, with characters standing stiffly in symmetry, it looks like Francois Truffaut shot a script by Kevin Smith, or vice versa. Perry's up to something way more deviant than his mumblecore peers, even if it isn't any more pleasant to watch. Happy birthday, new talent.
SEE IT: The Color Wheel screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium at 7 and 9 pm Friday; 5, 7 and 9 pm Saturday; 4:30 pm Sunday, June 1-3.