The Color Wheel (2011)
Written & Directed by Alex Ross Perry
I can’t imagine many people would like this movie. I’m still ambivalent about my own feelings. But that’s the point, I think. Alex Ross Perry is Noah Baumbach but angrier. He’s Wes Anderson without the sentimentality & cuteness. I don’t for a minute think The Color Wheel is Perry’s best film, but he would show marked improvement on his second try. The Color Wheel is an interesting film, grating but very short so you won’t have to endure the unpleasantness for too long. What makes the film so hard to get through is the quality of acting and its deeply unlikeable main characters.
JR (Carlen Altman) is a troubled woman, an aspiring actress who has decided to become a local news anchor would suffice. She’s not having luck in that department either. She has enlisted her brother Colin (Perry) to drive to her ex-boyfriend/ex-college professor’s house so JR can pick up what remains of her belongings. During the road trip, they bicker and fight, and we learn that their parents no longer want anything to do with JR, who they see as a narcissistic downer. Their time in this college town leads to some run-ins with JR’s old classmates. JR agrees to go to a party they are having after hearing one of their cousins is a talent agent. Colin is up for it when he finds out an old crush will be there and asks about him. Very uncomfortable things happen.
I don’t have a problem with media that features unlikeable characters. I find it highly odd how some people lose their shit when they engage with a piece of media, and the protagonist is an unpleasant character. If the work is well-made, then it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t read books or watch films to see aspirational figures. I do it to be entertained and maybe see some bit of honest truth in there. The problem with the main characters in The Color Wheel is that they are not well performed. Altman & Perry met at a stand-up comedy show where they were both performing, and maybe in that setting, they are more palatable. But here, they are incredibly stiff and unconvincing. These awkward performances sometimes get in the way of what could be a really fantastic indie film.
The picture really does capture the best things about independent cinema. It’s not cute or charming. You can feel how cobbled together the production is, that they are certainly using their friends to populate the cast. We don’t often get independent movies like this much anymore. What is often passed off as independent either falls into the exploitation revival genre or movies that lean too much into their “quirkiness”. If I had to compare the themes of Perry’s work to another director, I’d say he runs parallel to Todd Solondz. His aesthetic sensibilities are more literary, and so they remind me of Noah Baumbach.
I’ve recently read sentiments by Millennials about art being produced during this period, often by other Millennials, and the conclusion is there is no art in this period that will endure. It’s either corporate manufactured candy or solipsistic navel-gazing. The Color Wheel is undoubtedly the latter, though it’s ironic…maybe? I am beginning to agree with these ideas that our time’s art is ephemeral and so much is not worth remembering a decade, century, etc. from now.
This has been made especially clear after I’ve done my forays into older films. I can see why those pictures continue to have relevance, and I struggle to find much made now that I would reference. Yes, there are some great horror movies, but beyond that, even the best dramas of the 2010s pale compared to older works. The Color Wheel is undoubtedly a movie made outside the boundaries of corporate standards, and thus it’s the clear vision of these collaborators. I just don’t know if I care too much to hear what they have to say.