The shadow of Beyoncé loomed over Joss Whedon this weekend.
Much like Beyoncé's out-of-nowhere viral release strategy used in December for her self-titled fifth album, Whedon, finding time to step away from his Avengers: Age of Ultron set, unexpectedly defied traditional film distribution practices late Sunday night. The move was announced in a recorded on-camera message screened after the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of his new film, In Your Eyes. It's "his" film in that he wrote the screenplay and assisted as executive producer—technically, In Your Eyes is director Brin Hill's film, one generated through Whedon's micro-budget-minded production company Bellwether Pictures.
Immediately following Sunday's screening, the Tribeca brass played Whedon's video message, in which he announced that In Your Eyes would be available on the film's official Vimeo page for only $5 a download. The upload went live around midnight EST, robbing the festival goers of their usual sense of exclusivity and appeasing Whedon's millions of devoted, cult-like fans, the folks who've grown to love his unique, quippy, and always genre-infused style through shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly and movies like The Cabin in the Woods a little superhero project called Marvel's The Avengers.
It's an exciting move by Whedon and Bellwether, leveling the playing field for a passion project of In Your Eyes stature and affording everyone the opportunity to see it, not just those lucky enough to live near one of the five or six art-house theaters it'd otherwise screen at, or those whose cable providers offer the necessary VOD formats. It's also a shame, though, because In Your Eyes isn't Whedon's strongest work. In fact, it's fair to call it his worst work. In Your Eyes is by no means disastrously poor—earnestly made and finely acted, it's a feel-good affair that should no doubt make his legion of devotees quite content. Anyone who's not a Whedon apologist, however, will likely roll his or eyes more than an optometry patient.
If not for its leading actors, In Your Eyes would be unbearably overwrought. Fortunately, Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David are both terrific in what's essentially a supernaturally tinged Nicholas Sparks imitation. Complete with, yes, that schmaltzy storyteller's penchants for overheated melodrama, unintentionally silly moments of tenderness, and an overall heavy-handedness.
Kazan, one of the indie scene's best conveyors of lovable vulnerability, plays Rebecca, a rich socialite living in New Hampshire with her husband (Mark Feuerstein), a successful doctor whose brand of tough love often makes her feel inferior; over in New Mexico, meanwhile, Dylan (Stahl-David) is an ex-con trying to get his life in order while living in a rundown trailer and collecting meager paychecks at a car wash. Since they were both kids, Rebecca and Dylan have suffered from a strange case of hallucinations, or so they've thought—as it turns out, they're somehow able to see through one another's eyes. And once they discover this, they begin talking to each other and developing a tight, though publicly awkward and damaging, bond. Romantic feelings, naturally, are unavoidable.
Comparisons to Spike Jonze's Her are justifiable. Stahl-David's character's 'lonely guy connects with a female he can't ever touch' dilemma is nearly identical to that of Joaquin's Phoenix's Theodore, save for this film's lack of a mobile technology plot device. In Her, Jonze knew that the best way to sell his surface-level ludicrous premise was to undersell it and play everything as subtly as possible. Because of that, Her's greatest strength is its fully lived-in, easily acceptable world, a heightened universe where all of the next-level ideologies feel organic and realistic.
Whedon and Hill, on the other hand, abandon subtlety from jump street. Stahl-David's Dylan's go-to method of coping with the heart-rending realness is to stare longingly into the sky in front of beautifully scenic, postcard-ready backgrounds. When Rebecca and Dylan first begin to understand their shared powers, Kazan and Stahl-David overplay their wide-eyed disbelief and excitement as if they're acting on a kids' show like iCarly or Good Luck Chuck. Most egregiously of all, on-the-nose song choices from bands like The Lumineers and Iron & Wine flat-out tell you how to feel during certain scenes, rather than letting viewers feel for themselves; during a scene where Rebecca and Dylan are masturbating simultaneously, for instance, the song playing includes the lyric, "I wanna touch you." Sexual commentary with a sledgehammer.
Over time, Kazan and Stahl-David settle into their roles, and, along the way, form an impressive chemistry despite never being on screen together. They do so with merely a fraction of Whedon's usual brand of super-charged dialogue. Aside from a few recognizably whipsmart exchanges (including a clever PMS joke), In Your Eyes is Joss Whedon at his most uncharacteristically saccharine—lines like "my favorite part of myself is you" are said liberally and come off as cheeseball repeatedly. It's a testament to the actors, then, that In Your Eyes isn't altogether insufferable. Kazan, in particular, is a delight, finding the perfect middle-ground between on-edge fragility and spark-plug playfulness.
It's too bad the movie itself isn't worthy of Kazan's performance. Nor, frankly, does it deserve all of the attention it's receiving thanks to that ambitious straight-to-Vimeo release. Bellwether's previous, far superior film—Whedon's black-and-white, modern-day Much Ado About Nothing—would have been more ideal. In Your Eyes, though, is an attention-grabbing business model first and a disappointingly mediocre movie second. Imagine if Jay-Z's bae had pulled a Beyoncé with an album's worth of songs on par with Destiny's Child's 2013 dud "Nuclear," not the superb likes of "XO" and "Drunk in Love."
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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