Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Turtle Wins the Race: "Laggies" a charming irritant if there ever was one


Laggies (2014)
100 min., rated R.

"Laggies" is mumblecore director Lynn Shelton's first foray into the mainstream, breaking past the $1 million mark. As she has been known to rely heavily on improvisation, this marks the first time working from a screenplay she did not pen herself. Written by YA novelist Andrea Seigel, the film deals with fallible, far-from-perfect people, much like Shelton's own 2009's "Humpday," 2011's "Your Sister's Sister" and 2013's "Touchy Feely," but something almost feels too scripted and unbelievably tidy here. Whereas "Laggies" never loses sight of its characters, its plotting seems to do most of the pushing rather than always finding organic responses by the people themselves. Much like its central slacker—or "laggie"this coming-of-age/romantic-comedy hybrid is simultaneously charming and annoying. For everything it keeps getting right, it keeps taking another misstep. The performers sure are a delight, though.

Ten years out of high school, 28-year-old Seattleite Megan (Kiera Knightley) is moving at her own pace. She has an advanced degree that could have turned into a counseling career, but Megan would rather twirl a "tax advice" promotion sign for her father's (Jeff Garlin) accounting firm and watch the tube on her parents' couch. When her high school bestie, Allison (Ellie Kemper), is days away from getting married, it prompts Megan's supportive boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber), whom she lives with, to propose on the dance floor. Between not being ready for marrige, realizing she needs to get her shit together, and a badly timed revelation involving her parents, Megan splits from the wedding, her excuse being to buy and sprinkle rose petals around the honeymoon suite. She ends up buying beer and wine for a group of underagers, led by high school junior Annika (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz). Megan feels for Annika, whose mother has abandoned her and divorce attorney dad Craig (Sam Rockwell), and does her a favor if Megan can lay low for a week under the excuse to Anthony that she's going out of town to a career-defining seminar. 

With director Lynn Shelton working from Andrea Seigel's script, "Laggies" still carries a warm compassion and empathy for Megan's quarter-life crisis. If anything, both ladies are more judgy toward Megan's wedding-, baby-obsessed "friends" and use them as objects of ridicule. To a point, the scenario of Megan staying with Annika and Craig is made more palatable than not, and there are traces of insight into the idea of someone floating through life before finding his or her calling. The most appealing scenes are those between Megan and Annika, as the supposed adult bonds with a kid over friends her own age, and the same goes for Megan and Craig before the plot dictates that they hook up. However, once cringe-inducing situation piles on top of cringe-inducing situation, it becomes awfully hard to buy how Megan gets from point A to Z, too much fictional contrivance hindering the film from blowing the lid off a female's arrested development. Also, even though Shelton didn't have direct involvement with the script, the writing feels like a step back for the naturalistic filmmaker in how characters sometimes speak in thematically relevant platitudes. Yes, Annika even has a pet turtle who's as poky as Megan is in life.

Keira Knightley is at her loosest as the aimless Megan, bopping around with her headphones in as she twirls a sign on a curb and pinching the nipples of a Buddha statue by the restaurant entrance. It's to the testament of Knightley that, even when Megan has a tendency to not think before she acts, she is still winning without any vanity and provides an universal relatability along with rooting interest. As cool but responsible single dad Craig, Sam Rockwell is his understated but offbeat and unpredictable self; he has an innate B.S. detector, knowing Megan isn't a high school friend of his daughter's, but he also has a vulnerable heart since his wife has left them. As troubled Annika, the wise-beyond-her-years ChloĆ« Grace Moretz is so open-hearted and natural, never missing a beat in portraying the highs and lows of being a teenage girl, and Kaitlyn Dever (2014's "Men, Women & Children") seems to be on her way to be a breakout star, bursting with personality and intelligence as Annika's skater best friend Misty. Mark Webber is affable, here as Megan's boyfriend Anthony, but he really needs to branch out and resist taking so many roles that come down to The Nice Guy. Gretchen Mol forms an entire character in about five minutes' time as Annika's estranged lingerie-modeling mother. Finally, as Allison, one of Megan's to-be-wed high school friends, the adorably untamed Ellie Kemper is made to act like too much of a caricature here, let alone a shrewish bride who singles out Megan from her other two friends for making jokes at her bachelorette party. Her choreographed dance with her newlywedded husband to a Backstreet Boys song is a hoot, though.

The further one gets away from "Laggies," the more one may like it. In the moment, Megan's messy arc to maturity grows increasingly irritating, as a handful of the situations ring more of a screenwriter's contrivance than truth. Even amidst Megan's occasionally childish decision-making and deceitful behavior, the final implication that all Megan needs is a father of a motherless teenage girl is all pat peaches 'n cream, which is anomalous for Shelton. In retrospect, the film is still pleasantly low-key in its blend of character-based laughs and human pathos, and it handles most of its characters with respect and intelligence. Luckily, "Laggies" is better for the dexterous cast it has assembled. 

Grade: B - 

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