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MOVIE REVEW: 'Restless' a dreary, downer of a movie

RESTLESS

(PG-13)

2 stars out of 4: Take any Nicholas Sparks novel, set it in the dreary northwest U.S., include two teen romantic leads with close connections to death and the result would be "Restless." Having the misfortune of coming out a week after the barely similar but far superior "50/50," "Restless" also tries -- with zero success -- to infuse gallows humor and quirk into the young-person-with-cancer scenario.

Loaded down with the kind of wall-to-wall, sensitive light indie rock usually found in cable TV shows geared toward adolescent girls, the movie is preciously calculating and insufferably twee. The once-gifted director Gus Van Zant has handled this type of teen/young adult angst material much better in "My Own Private Idaho," "Good Will Hunting" and "Elephant" and here he comes off as a fresh-faced, eager-to-please greenhorn looking to snare a major studio contract.

Opening with a level of promise that matches the lyrical content of the Beatles' accompanying "Two of Us," "Restless" introduces us to the oddly named Enoch (Henry Hopper) a slight, borderline-androgynous male model type who looks more like Jude Law than his late father Dennis. With a fashion sense rooted firmly in the '80s, Enoch rarely wears anything but black which goes along with his unrelenting obsession with death. To rookie writer Jason Lew's credit, he waits a bit before filling us in on the details behind Enoch's downer personality.

Unemployed and uninterested in school, Enoch spends a great deal of time talking to his imaginary friend Hiroshi (Ryo Case), a World War II Japanese kamikaze pilot. How Lew came up with this character makes little sense and is never explained but does provide the movie with its most moving voice-over sequence late in the third act.

For fun, Enoch crashes memorial services at the local funeral home. This is where he first meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a waifish type with a pixie hair-do and a similar Salvation Army taste in clothes. He repeatedly blows off her innocent advances until she comes to his aid with some clever adlibbing.

With the "Addams Family" meet-cute out of the way, Lew and Van Zant spend the rest of the mercifully short 91 minutes having their leads engage in the kind of post-hippie/new-age/meaning-of-life banter that only takes place in the movies. Enoch's scenes with Hiroshi fair slightly better, which is not to say they're all that great or that Wasikowska doesn't pull her weight. On the contrary, she acts circles around first-timer Hopper who sadly inherited none of his father's wing-nut charm or intensity.

Conveniently filmed in Van Zant's hometown of Portland, Ore., "Restless" is further dragged down by perpetually overcast skies and a rustic, golden-tinted cinematography that all too often flattens and fuzzes the images. The material itself is downbeat enough; Van Zant didn't need to pile on by making it ugly in order to drive home the point.

Death is not fun -- especially when it claims young people, but there's no reason a movie depicting it has to be this wan, brittle and self-consciously cloying. If you must indulge in a movie about cancer, again -- go with "50/50." You'll at least get more than a few chances to laugh. (Sony Classics)