C’mon C’mon reimagines Joaquin Phoenix as an introspective radio producer who interviews kids about the future
Shortly before the dawn of COVID-19, a savage, grease-painted Joaquin Phoenix paraded down a New York staircase and to Oscar glory in Joker, Todd Phillips’ controversial Martin Scorsese-style addition. , to the DC Cinematic Universe.
Phoenix returns to the big screen in Mike Mills’ seemingly unassuming humanist drama C’mon C’mon, as soft-hearted radio journalist Johnny – a man touched by inarticulate melancholy but still idealistic enough to roam the United States. by interviewing young people about their visions of the future. (Watch out, Ira Glass.)
All crumpled buttons and understated sincerity, Johnny is a role that seems designed to neutralize any acrid taste left behind by Joker. From the way he walks through hotel rooms thinking pensively into his microphone, or even being moved to tears while reading a children’s book aloud, he seems like the kind of guy who might find Scorsese films “problematic. “.
An evolving family crisis finds Johnny, with the trepidation of a middle-aged bachelor, agreeing to care for his precocious nine-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman, a true newcomer livewire) on behalf of his half-estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann, Transparent).
In the odd couple’s journey from Jesse’s house in Los Angeles to Johnny’s downtown apartment in Manhattan and New Orleans for work, awkwardness and outbursts of vexation give way to a deep intergenerational bond – through which the more messy aspects of their relationships with significant others are finally given much-needed airspace. (“Why aren’t you married?” Jesse wants to know, inevitably reversing the roles of the professional interviewer. “Why don’t you and mom act like brother and sister?”)
Writer-director Mills – who paid a fictional tribute to his father in Beginners in 2010, followed by a tribute to his mother with 20th Century Women in 2016 – was here inspired by his own struggles with parenthood: his child with his wife and fellow filmmaker and artist Miranda July was born in 2012.
And, as before, he channeled hints of autobiography into fiction: in this respect the filmmaker cited as particularly inspiring Wim Wenders’ bittersweet 1974 road movie Alice in the Cities, also a monochrome chronicle of a journalist struggling with a pint-sized travel companion whose feelings and needs are often alien to his own.
Adding an element of truth to the heartfelt mix, the real-life interview sessions with young people, in their schools and in their homes, are mostly conducted with great sensitivity by a senior Phoenix and Radiolab correspondent, Molly Webster, playing the colleague of Johnny, Roxane.
(The unstudied nature of their responses, it must be said, has the unfortunate side effect of making Phoenix’s exchanges with the young Norman, naturalist by movie standards, a bit studied at times.)
Like the archival footage that punctuates both Beginners and 20th Century Women—Mills has a collagist sensibility and also likes to weave in written quotations—these interview footage strives to situate a small-scale narrative within the wide range of a cultural moment; they are gestures beyond the frame of the story to the great expanse of life beyond.
But, much like lesser episodes of This American Life, Johnny’s radio project — and Mills’ by proxy — is sometimes considered mundane.
With each interviewee only given the space of a sentence or two in the film, they can do little more than offer tentative generalizations. Taken collectively, these give only a vague glimpse of what the country’s young people think about such weighty topics as climate change, war and self-expression – which amounts to a kind of speculative optimism and without engagement.
The quavering, dreamlike soundscape (courtesy of Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National) that underlies the children’s commentary does these sequences a disservice.
Neither do the streetscape montages that accompany it, with Robbie Ryan’s grayscale cinematography bringing the film’s varied urban environments into the same bland touch.
It’s integral to the design of the film as part of the documentary that Johnny (regardless of his other insecurities) has complete confidence in the importance of his project. The same cannot be said for Philip Winter, the journalist played by Rüdiger Vogler in Alice in the Cities, also tasked with investigating nothing less than America itself.
Philip is a frustrated writer who has resorted to documenting his trip across the country in Polaroids, hoping the words will follow. And yet, even his photos are disappointing: “They never show what you saw”, he laments.
This difference in temperament is perhaps instructive.
In Alice in the Cities, the bonds are based on mutual disconnection – the German Philip is adrift in a foreign land; Alice is abandoned by her mother – and is ultimately fleeting. The film’s final scene makes no promises about the future of either character.
C’mon C’mon, by comparison, builds toward a neat resolution and sees the task of caring for a child — for the future, if you will — through far more confused eyes. (Wenders may have been the most sentimental of the filmmakers assembled under the New German Cinema label, but Mills is in a different league.)
What I tune is a matter of personal taste. More off-putting, however, is a certain knowledge that pervades the film. Mills’ fiction, though crafted with palpable thought and affection, feels fundamentally demonstrative rather than exploratory, and the conclusions it offers feel accordingly abandoned.
C’mon C’mon is in theaters now.