Max Landis does not read reviews. He will never read this. Even so, reviews are not typically for a director any more than they are for the reviewer. But this review is different. This review is written explicitly for Max, for myself, and anyone who had anything - however large or small - to do with making ME HIM HER (2015). I hope that does not sound desperate or ominous. That is not what I mean or how I mean it. Rather, I mean that there was something I noticed while watching the film at Thursday's press / friends screening that was later confirmed in the Q&A. It all boils down to this: Max Landis' debut feature is ultimately a film that fails to take its own advice.
Its advice for its characters and, in turn, its audience is "be you." There is no need to apologize for who you are, no need to suppress deep-seated feelings, no appropriate excuse for being anything but your best, truest self. While the message and thematic focus on identity is narratively clear (if problematic)*, the movie feels fragmented and as if whole sections are missing. Without having access to a script or any knowledge of potential alternate edits to attempt some less hypothetical analysis, I can only vaguely describe the feeling of an absent tonal core. Its scenes appear primarily plot-driven, yet the rare exceptions surface undercooked subplots (the best friend character played by Dustin Milligan is depressed because he - unsuccessfully - applied to a bunch of jobs in LA) or hiccups of cartoonish surreality (a monstrously large and boisterous penis haunts the dreams of more than one character). Such scenes are in the minority and recede before they can be appreciated, but offer snapshots of a movie that might have been honest about itself from the start, instead of being a tease about its true sensibility.
As is, the result is something familiar. I derive no pleasure in saying it, but this is a movie that has been made before. It was called KABOOM (2010), directed by Gregg Araki, and - as Araki relates in this interview - it was about making a film that "didn't have to censor itself." KABOOM was utterly, completely itself and gave zero fucks about audience expectations. Was it perfect? No. Did it retread territory from his previous film NOWHERE (1997)? No question. But was it entertaining as fuck with a soundtrack full of earworms? A thousand and one times 'yes.' KABOOM was like receiving an idiosyncratic, but carefully curated mix tape from its director. Hugely personal, sure, but a gift. Both movies' central male character is struggling with his sexual identity, the female character is dealing with a witchy ex-girlfriend, but whereas KABOOM embraces its every moment with complete confidence (regardless of success or failure), ME HIM HER refuses to take genuine risks and relegates itself to mediocrity.
Landis confirmed his approach to re-writing and editing the film during Thursday's Q&A. He said that he felt that he had to reign himself in, censor himself, and make the film more normal. "Had I not," Landis said, "the movie would have been weird to the point of alienation." But why not exercise total creative freedom? It is surely not the responsibility of the director to temper the end product to correspond to an imaginary set of expectations. That is not how you create art. That is how you run a business, how you balance an account, how you produce a picture. Somewhere in the midst of making his first movie ME HIM HER, Max Landis ceased to follow his creative instinct.
I want to see the "be you" version of ME HIM HER. I have confidence that it exists. Maybe not everything from the script was shot or, even if it was, maybe it didn't turn out. However, I feel strongly that there is another truer version of this film out there, a version that takes its own advice and doesn't compromise its craziness in favor of an attempt at "normal." In its current version, I do not think ME HIM HER is a bad movie, but I think that there is - or was - a better and more honest movie left in the cutting room (or perhaps abandoned in-production). Its actors are skilled, professional, and convincing in their roles (Luke Bracey's American accent is particularly impressive), but a movie is nothing without a clear, confident vision. Filmmaking is tough, brave, and collaborative work. Not everybody makes a good film. Not everybody even makes a film. Making a film, everybody tries to do their best. But they do it. Right now, that is more than I can say for myself. Speaking personally, I do intend to change that.
Max, on the off chance that you do read this, I hope one day we - or at least I - can see your "be you" version.
*I think we've met the quota for films where heterosexual men turn lesbians straight with their dicks.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon