Movie Review: ‘HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES’ and alienate people

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES

Rated R, 102 minutes
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Starring: Alex Sharp, Ethan Lawrence, Abraham Lewis, Elle FanningNicole KidmanRuth Wilson, Matt Lucas

For those seeking advice on overcoming their social anxieties, director John Cameron Mitchell’s HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES probably won’t be a very helpful instructional manual. This sci-fi-tinged comedy, based on a Neil Gaiman short story, is less of a “how to” and more of a conventional slog. Unlike the actual movement it should be defiantly ripping its pages from, Mitchell’s portrait of late seventies punk-rock angst barely grasps any genuine nihilistic anarchy.

Henry (Alex Sharp), or “Enn” as his friends call him, lives and breathes punk rock. He and pals Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence) try to get as much of it as they can in Croydon, but the small town only offers so much. They’re perpetually in search of the next anti-establishment, counter-culture revolution. Naturally they find one. One night, after a show, they mistakenly stumble into the wrong after-party – a house party held by a cannibalistic alien cult. John becomes part of an art installation with dancers and a shrill choir of latex-clothed weirdos. Vic runs off with a dominatrix-like babe to reluctantly be anal-probed. And Enn becomes enraptured with Zan (Elle Fanning), a free-thinking colony member whose rebellious spirit lights a spark in his soul. She’s curious about his world. “Do more punk to me,” she begs of him. Only they’ve got limited time to do it before she permanently departs.

Nicole Kidman, Hebe Beardsall, and Alice Sanders in HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES. Courtesy of A24.

The film is at its best when it “does more punk” to us as well. All of the music scenes are vivid, electric and radiant. Mitchell even carves out time for his homage to the Chicago blues club scene in ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING, where the character unwittingly uncovers her hidden talent for entertaining a tough crowd. The “Eat Me Alive” song sequence is where everything – from Sandy Powell’s brilliant costume designs, to Helen Scott’s production design, to the hair and make-up team’s revelatory work, to the visual effects – comes completely alive. It’s just too bad it’s fleeting. And the rest of the film suffers greatly because of it.

These are also the sequences when Nicole Kidman, playing frustrated underground music manager Queen Boadicea, sets the film ablaze. Her look and magnetic personality make her the wiser, tougher, sassier sister of LABYRINTH’s “The Goblin King” (no doubt inspired by David Bowie). Her character is the only one that Mitchell, along with co-screenwriter Philippa Goslett, gives any shades of depth and dimension to. Kidman is perfectly capable of being a strong supporting player in an ensemble, but her dynamic performance here pulls the focus in her minimal screen time.

That said, the rest are dealt short shrift. They all start and end without much growth or enrichment – even Enn, who’s greatest discovery is a trite, “…and the 7th Colony was love” lesson. Zan is a very outdated, rather infuriating manifestation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The romance between the two star-crossed lovers also fails, because nothing in the material makes the audience root for them as a couple. Vic’s thing is that he’s the horny teen you’ve seen in every film featuring horny teens. Needless to say, that’s not enough. Though they blessedly never go for the obvious fat friend gags with John, the filmmakers don’t bother doing anything at all with him.

Mitchell and Goslett make added mistakes playing the absurdity and inherent comedy of the premise with stark seriousness. They value weird for weirdness’ sake. Pacing is also problematic, as it spends far too long in uncomfortable settings (at the Colony’s home base) and not enough time at the better ones (in the punk clubs, or at Boadecia’s Warhol-esque factory).

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES shares similar overtones to ambitious failures like THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. Not only does every sentiment in this feel totally past its prime, it’s akin to a forgettable Miramax movie from the early aughts – and leaves the same after-effects.

Grade: D+

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES is now playing in limited release.

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