Sundance 2011: Jeremy Piven's 'I Melt With You' fires them up in Utah
When a film-festival screening ends with the director thanking the audience for sitting through the movie, you know it's been a doozy.
Or, more specifically in the case of Mark Pellington's "I Melt With You," which world-premiered on Wednesday night at Sundance, that it's a trip through the shocking and the outrageous -- literally a trip, first off, and also the kind of experience that prompted at least one audience member to leave midway because it was "too dark for me" and another to congratulate the filmmakers because he felt like he'd "been on a bender" after seeing the film.
The male-bonding drama -- for lack of a better known genre -- starts out on an almost sane note, with a quartet of longtime, 40-something buddies (Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Thomas Jayne and Christian McKay) leaving behind their daily lives and heading off for a week of debauchery in Big Sur. Things go according to plan for the first hour or so of the movie -- the plan being to ingest every controlled substance known to man, go on sports-car joyrides across the Northern California landscape and have semi-deep conversations about their troubled lives. Pellington draws heavily on his music-video background, cutting quickly over a soundtrack of punk, New Wave and other '80s music.
That's the almost sane part. The insane part...well, without giving too much away, let's just say when tragedy strikes one of the friends, it sets off a chain of dramatically self-destructive events, each more outrageous than the last, almost as though Pellington was daring the audience to stay with him.
And apparently, he was.
When the lights came on after the screening at the festival's Eccles Theater, the audience in stunned silence, Pellington walked on stage with a reaction you don't hear every day from a director. "My hats off to you for staying for this," he said. "Fifty people didn't walk out." (At a press screening earlier in the week, nearly that number were said to do just that.)
He was hardly the only one apologizing, or at least joking about the buttons pressed. Piven said he was sorry to his mother (she was, it appeared, sitting in the theater). And Lowe said he wasn't deluding himself that this film was anywhere near the mainstream. "Clearly it's going to be such a polarizing movie," he offered. (The critics seem to feel that way too; it's been evoking some pretty divisive reactions).
There will be no doubt be speculation about why a group of established actors took on roles of such shocking extremes. The performers went with the more generous explanation, that of artistic bravery: "'It's a business that in large part gets safer and safer every year," Lowe said. "Movies are, more and more, geared for more and more people."
(People, incidentally, will get to see "I Melt With You" and decide for themselves. On Wednesday morning, Magnolia Pictures announced it had acquired rights to the movie. Pellington made a point from the stage of thanking his sales agents; lord knows they earned their keep.)
Just before the question-and-answer session ended, an audience member asked the director, who was last in Sundance with the, um, far quieter spiritual drama "Henry Poole Was Here," what he expected filmgoers to take away from his movie. "I just want people to feel, whatever they feel," he said, "to have something stay with them beyond the parking lot." By that measure, at least, he succeeded.
--Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman in Park City, Utah
Photo: A still from 'I Melt With You.' Credit: Sundance Film Festival