“Are we in a rush or something?” It’s one of the earliest pieces of dialogue in Max Winkler’s debut picture, Ceremony, and I don’t know if he meant any irony by the statement but after an hour and twenty minutes that little quip perfectly encapsulates my feelings on the film. Winkler’s in a hurry to get somewhere fast, and his urgency serves as his Achilles’ heel in storytelling. Ceremony is a small film, one unconcerned with big pictures or grand ideas, and one through which Winkler hurtles as he races to get to the finish line of his narrative; he has somewhere to get and he’s going to get there even if it means suffocating his film and keeping it from breathing the way it should.
Ceremony is something of a road trip movie, though the road is short and the trip itself even shorter for Sam (Angarano) and Marshall (Reece Thompson). The two young men are on their way to a weekend getaway in upstate New York, where Sam plans to reconnect with his best friend and have an adventure. Only Sam’s not an honest person, and the truth is that he’s really there to crash the wedding of Zoe (Uma Thurman) and her larger-than-life British documentary filmmaker fiance Whit (Lee Pace). Sam, it seems, is deeply and madly in love with Zoe, and taken at face value there’s something romantic and bold about his presence at the site of her upcoming nuptials; we almost want to root for the guy.
The problem is that he’s kind of a jerk. Not even kind of. He’s a massive prick, in fact, and therein lies Ceremony‘s biggest problem.
Winkler’s new at this so I can understand the need for brevity and curtailing his film to get to the real substance of his plot quickly. There’s a sense that the director’s somewhat anxious, and if the effect on his movie isn’t one I’d call “positive” I can at least accept it as part of his journey as an artist. But if Ceremony had just been too quickly paced out, it still might have been an enjoyable ride; the acting, by and large, is wonderful, and the photography is smart and crisp.
At its heart, though, the movie’s deeply flawed. We’re told that Sam and Zoe had a fling one night in New York City and that they’ve been pen pals ever since– Sam’s a writer, and so he sends her samples of his work for her enjoyment and critique– but we’re never given a single solid reason as to why Zoe might have even a cursory interest in Sam, much less the far more substantive infatuation that the film hints at. It’s made fairly evident that Zoe does love him; that’s not the issue. The issue is that Ceremony never satisfactorily shows us why.
Throughout the film, our principle lies and manipulates his way into events which Zoe intended to bar him from; he uses Marshal, blatantly and often, under the guise of wanting to rekindle their friendship. Put bluntly, Sam is selfish at best and monstrously cruel at worst– but we’re meant to accept him as something of a romantic, and root for him as our protagonist. In a film with less ambition, Sam would be the ultimate nice guy and we’d be firmly in his corner from the very first frame; Whit, by contrast, would appear to be despicable and inferior on every meaningful level. In the contest for Zoe’s love, we’d clearly want Sam to win and expose Whit as being less than what she deserves in her partner. Neat, simple, and plain as can be.
Ceremony shoots for more than that but misses horribly. Whit is kind of a pompous loudmouth, but he never once sinks to the levels Sam eagerly descends to. Come to that he seems to have a level of self-awareness that Sam totally lacks; he might be flawed but he appears to know it. Sam’s just a terrible person, and even when he admits to his transgressions he never really seems to be all that sorry for them (or even believe what he’s saying to be true, for that matter). So as Ceremony runs along, we ask ourselves constantly why Zoe would ever have any interest in him at all– he’s detestable. He’s directionless. He’s self-absorbed. He’s far too young for her. He’s needy and obnoxious. In point of fact, he’s a hair’s breadth away from neurotic stalkerdom. Where’s the attraction?
In Winkler’s defense, explicitly stating what Sam has that drew Zoe to him in the first place would have been something of a fumble. But Ceremony hardly even hints at why the two might ever connect romantically. Frankly, it’s a case of time; Ceremony doesn’t have enough to spare to let their quiet attraction to each other really develop. It comes close in a couple of great moments– in the third act, Sam gets honest and emotional and raw with Zoe in a bit that’s very nearly heartbreaking (though if nothing else, it’s well-acted)– but the quality of the beats that do work just emphasize how severely Winkler undercooks everything else of importance in the film.
Ceremony isn’t a total wash– there’s some fine acting here from both a natural, breezily cool Thurman and from Angarano, who gamely makes a go of overcoming the script’s campaign to render Sam as unlikable as possible– but it’s a frustrating effort. If there’s some greater point about the nature of love that Winkler’s trying to make here, I’m mystified as to what it might be; Sam appears to be driven by obsession and more egregiously doesn’t seem to view Zoe as a complete person but rather some kind of prize to be won. Maybe that’s because the intangibles behind their mutual attraction never enter our radar. Maybe it’s because Sam is totally unsympathetic. Whatever the reason, Ceremony‘s emotional void prevents it from ever working as a romance and as a complete movie.