Everyone speaks in the same struggling-to-be-sensitive manner in C’mon C’mon, a film of intelligence and insight that nonetheless remains a low-key and sometimes frustrating study of big city short-fallers. Toplined by Joaquin Phoenix in his first outing since his Joker Oscar turn and highlighted by a precocious performance from young newcomer Woody Norman, this is an impeccable-looking film about a mangy radio journo trying to put his finger on the pulse of American citizens, with only tentative and partially edifying results. Premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, this A24 release will open after its screening at the New York Film Festival on October 4.
Writer-director Mike Mills stirred critical interest with very good casts in three previous features spread over 12 years: Thumbsucker, Beginners and 20th Century Women. His new film, which is in splendid black-and-white, focuses on brainy, water-treading urbanites trying but mostly failing to make coherent sense of society in general while watching even their familial ties fray in ways they have trouble getting a grip on. These men and women are at a loss as to how to improve their lots in life, their vaunted intellectual qualifications having provided them with precious little to show for their efforts.
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Given their cultural and academic advantages, the characters here look no more prepared than college undergrads to cope with the full range of life’s demands. Never married and without kids, Johnny (Phoenix) is an amiable, middle-aged, hippie-ish slob who lives in New York’s Chinatown and whose current assignment is to record young people’s views about the future, their hopes, fears and expectations. Given his slovenly appearance, this is one broadcaster who will never be welcome on TV.
As Johnny’s sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) doesn’t feel up to looking after her son Jesse (Norman) at the moment, she dumps the boy on her brother as he embarks upon his road trip to assess the cultural climate. Jesse is a precocious 9 year old with the attitude and vocabulary of a super-smart teenager, so much so that the British Norman immediately reminds one of a very young Woody Allen (and makes one wonder whether he might have been named after the comic auteur). He certainly could have been great in an Allen film and makes this film cook whenever he’s onscreen.
As the twosome bumps around the country from Detroit to New Orleans, Los Angeles and San Francisco and eventually back to Gotham, a sense of meandering takes hold both geographically and dramatically. Johnny asks the same kind of questions wherever he goes and no matter how far they travel, the dramatic trajectory never leads anywhere particularly interesting, remaining in a self-regarding bubble the entire time. Not only that, but the characters’ neuroses feel generalized, not specific enough to provoke much interest in how, despite their smarts, they’ve ended up on the professional margins.
What C’mon C’mon does have going for it in a big way is the cinematography by the Irish cameraman Robbie Ryan, who regularly shoots for Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold and recently made waves with his work on The Favourite. His lustrous monochrome work here, almost entirely on big-city locations, is both bold and warmly intimate, a constant pleasure to behold.
Phoenix here looks like a mangy old living room cushion that hasn’t been cleaned or reupholstered in 20 years and conveys a grungy amiability that’s he’s seldom, if ever, displayed in a performance before. He and Norman make a very good odd couple, with more substance coming from their interactions than any insights the grown man extracts from the citizens he interviews about the state of the world. It’s this aspect of the film that remains frustrating and actually brings to mind the famous tag line that accompanied another road movie, Easy Rider, more than 50 years ago — “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.”