Writer-director Max Winkler grew up with one foot in show business as the son of actor Henry Winkler, best remembered for his long run on the iconic sitcom Happy Days. When a guy grows up with The Fonz, television’s measure of cool in the 1970s, as his dad, you can’t help but wonder who his role models will turn out to be. Well, in the case of Max Winkler, there’s one obvious answer -- Wes Anderson. Winkler’s first feature film, Ceremony, so closely resembles Anderson’s work in terms of character, narrative approach, and style that many viewers may find themselves waiting for Bill Murray, or at least Jason Schwartzman, to pop up somewhere. That said, while Ceremony may not look or feel terribly original, Winkler has clearly learned a lot from his study of Anderson’s oeuvre, and he’s made a comedy that’s intelligent, stylish, and effective even when it’s emulating someone else’s work.
As Ceremony begins, Sam Davis (played by Michael Angarano) is hosting a reading of his new book for children. However, the only person in attendance is Sam’s seriously neurotic best friend, Marshall (Reece Thompson), who hasn’t seen Sam in over a year, and we discover the book is the latest in a series that Sam has written but hasn’t been able to publish. Sam has proposed that he and Marshall spend a few days catching up and relaxing along the Long Island coastline, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that Sam is stringing Marshall along because he needs a ride and a wingman. A few years before, twentysomething Sam had a one-night stand with Zoe (Uma Thurman), a beautiful woman in her late thirties. Sam has been madly in love with Zoe ever since; however, while she has a certain fondness for Sam, she can’t take him seriously as a boyfriend and is engaged to marry Whit Coutell (Lee Pace), an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker with an ego as big as his beachside mansion. Sam has decided to crash Zoe and Whit’s weekend-long wedding celebration, with Marshall in tow, in hopes of winning her away from Whit before it’s too late. Despite Sam’s powerful self-confidence in the face of long odds, though, it becomes clear that Zoe doesn’t really want him around, no matter how mixed her feelings for him might be, and that Marshall was a bad choice for a sidekick, given his constant paranoia and habit of accidentally hurting himself.
Ceremony starts feeling like a Wes Anderson homage in its first few minutes, and the points of similarity just keep piling up as the film goes along. Consider the arrogantly charming but clueless and delusional romantic fool (showing no small resemblance to Max Fischer in Rushmore); his wealthy, successful, and older rival (again, right out of Rushmore); their shared object of affection who seems too old and too bright to be interested in the protagonist (more Rushmore); and the sometimes uncomfortable interaction between middle-class and upper-class characters (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums). Then there’s Winkler’s careful widescreen framings full of idiosyncratic color schemes, the soundtrack full of esoteric pop tunes from the past, the fractured romanticism of the narrative, the undertow of caring but dysfunctional relationships among family and friends, the deadpan humor… this couldn’t be much more of a Wes Anderson movie if Winkler had asked Wes to direct the script himself. Despite all of this, Ceremony moves with brisk, good-natured enthusiasm, and Winkler clearly knows how to make a film that looks good (cinematographer William Rexer II certainly helps) and draws solid performances from his actors. Michael Angarano manages to make Sam genuinely charming even when he’s behaving badly (which is often), and he’s able to build something of a character that could easily have been thoroughly hateful. Reece Thompson does similarly impressive work as Marshall, making the character a splendid comic foil, and Jake Johnson scores impressively as Teddy, Zoe’s swaggering burnout of a brother. While Uma Thurman is more of an object to be adored than a proper character as Zoe, she plays very well off Angarano and she’s just as beautiful and captivating as the role requires. Ceremony is ultimately too derivative for its own good, but despite the feeling that most of this is borrowed goods, the film succeeds as smart, light entertainment; it’s playful and agile, making the most of its swift 90-minute running time, and shows that Max Winkler has genuine talent, even if he needs to develop a more individual approach before he gets to work on his next project. leave a comment --Mark Deming