Owen Gleiberman
January 28, 2011 AT 05:08 PM EST

Normally, I like to lead my Sundance coverage with the positive. At this festival, it’s an article of faith that a terrific movie, no matter how small, takes precedence over a lousy movie, no matter how big. But I Melt With You, a men-behaving- badly “shocker,” may be a special case. Fifteen minutes into it, I wanted to walk out; 45 minutes in, I wanted to commit seppuku. And there was still more than an hour to go! Through the torture of it all, I began to grasp that this was no ordinary bad movie. It’s howlingly, outrageously bad. Imagine some drug-drenched hetero version of The Boys in the Band written by Andrew Dice Clay and directed like the most badass Michelob commercial of 1991. I Melt With You is an artifact of awfulness, a cinematic train crash that should be studied in screenwriting and directing classes for years to come, as a kind of one-film encyclopedia of what not to do.

Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, and Christian McKay play former college buddies, now in their mid-40s, who reunite for one week each year, at some remote palatial rented villa, to turn back the clock and turn back into the “free” guys they once were. Oh, and are they going to let those freak flags fly! Those ids run wild! In the first half hour alone, they do enough drugs to choke a horse — cocaine, pharmaceuticals, all washed down with slugs of whiskey — and the director, Mark Pellington, cuts their laughing, taunting, dancing, and obscene-joke-making confessional banter into showy little testosterone-fueled fragments, all of it staged with a shadowy glow, so that we know they may look like they’re having fun, but they’re really in hell. I Melt With You says that men are dogs in suits, and nothing more than dogs. And they hate themselves for it. The movie, you see, is a deadly serious existential inquiry into the ugliness of the Male Mind. It’s a bacchanal movie, but it’s (deliberately) not fun. It’s dark, man! Dark as a man’s soul.

I first knew that something was off when Christian McKay, with a Beatles beard and puppy-dog eyes, walked into the house to find Thomas Jane, already blasted as he blasts the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” Jane is supposed to be playing a high-school English teacher, but the movie has barely started and already he’s coming on like a psychotic mobster on a bender. Then he announces that the car in the driveway — a real honey of a car! A Porsche! — is one that he bought, on a whim, during the trip there and intends to trash by the week’s end. Wow, dangerous! There’s no reality to this, it’s an exhibitionistic movie gesture. Just like that Porsche, a dated consumer fetish item and a tip-off that these men are going to party like it’s 1982.

Which of the characters is more fake, broad, hammy, cliché, and annoying? That’s a brain teaser to make your head hurt. The answer is: whichever one you happen to be watching. There’s Jane’s gnashing public-school educator, who once had a novel on the bestseller list, but his “creativity” has run dry. There’s Rob Lowe, grimacing at the Emptiness Of His Life, as a divorced, once-honorable physician who now makes his money supplying rich ladies with OxyContin. (He’s the one who brings along a briefcase full of pills.) There’s the sensitive depressive, played by McKay (so uncanny as the title theatrical genius of Me and Orson Welles), and he gives a moist, timid, invisible-ink performance that makes it look as if he’d been studying at the Charles Grodin School of Dramatic Arts. And there’s Jeremy Piven as the token family man, a Wall Street player who’s devoted to his wife and kids and is therefore, of course, about to have his entire life ruined by an investigation into his corrupt financial dealings. Jane twists his face and goes berserk, Lowe mopes, McKay whines, and Piven does the glib motormouth a-hole routine that he’s now far too facile at. You wait for his verbal gut punches like rim shots.

I Melt With You is a movie in which the men are so regressed, so studiously brutal and show-off nasty — in other words, such complete and utter concoctions — that the film barely even establishes that they have civilized selves to regress from. They’re stuck in rage, hormones, and Neil LaBute-level knowing misogyny (LaBute was one of the producers). They’re also stuck in time — or, at least, Mark Pellington is. He crams the soundtrack with old punk chestnuts, as if none of these guys had ever downloaded a song beyond their X and Dead Kennedys CDs. The whole movie has an embarrassingly dated going-all-the-way ’80s mustiness, from Thomas Jane’s pickup lines to the way the women on screen react to a man who talks like that. (They don’t roll their eyes and walk away.) Pellington has been a good director of genre films (like Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies), but here, trying to make a “statement,” all of his craft seems to have leaked away. When he’s not staging another pill-popping and snorting montage, or giving us little porno flashes of Sasha Grey’s body in a three-way tryst that goes flaccid before it begins, the movie sludges along as glum, rhythmless, emotionally deserted psychodrama.

The singular terribleness of I Melt With You is that it pretends to be about four ordinary guys, but it’s really an undigested gob of male fantasy about four guys who act like piggish Hollywood producers and then have to punish themselves for it. In the worst way possible. And all because they made a pact! Back in college. Like sorority sisters out of some cheap horror film. I Melt With You comes on as a party-turned-nightmare, but really, it’s a nightmare of bad filmmaking you want to wake up from, and — for too long — can’t.

* * * *

Hell and Back Again is a documentary that plunges you into the war in Afghanistan with as much fear and immediacy and chaos as Restrepo did — though this movie, in my view, is a lot better made. The images of combat, while caught on the fly, have an almost classical terror. In shot after shot, the camera trails the Marines of the Echo Company 2nd Platoon as they snake their way though plains and rocks and around the corners of buildings, with the possibiity of ambush hanging in their air. The sound engulfs you, and the images mesmerize, in part because the camera doesn’t shake (did the director, Danfung Dennis, rig up some DV version of a Steadicam?). I was often reminded of scenes from Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan, in which one of the major activities of war beomes waiting for war, until it arrives with its sickening murderous charge.

Early on, a commanding officer gives a speech to the company in which he announces that their principle task, apart from killing members of the Taliban, is to form relationships with the Afghan civilians they meet, and to gain their trust. This, he says, is how America will win the war. It’s his version of the hearts-and-minds strategy that worked so infamously badly in Vietnam — and, from the evidence of Hell and Back Again, the strategy isn’t panning out much better in Afghanistan. Each time the soldiers attempt to have a friendly talk with a group of Afghan farmers, the locals will sit, in their turbans and long beards, listening patiently, and then explain that while they don’t like the Taliban, they regard the Americans as agents of destruction who ruin their crops and their water supply, and who are keeping them and their families from living. Hell and Back Again captures, with devastating journalistic clarity, that the notion that the Americans are ever going to “win over” these people is just an abstract colonial fantasy.

The movie, however, is not a political tract. It cuts back and forth between the perilous mission of Echo Company and the readjustment, back home, of its commanding sergeant, 25-year-old Nathan Harris, who was shot on one of his last days there and is being rehabilitated after suffering a broken hip and a shattered leg. As war injuries go, this one doesn’t sound as horrific as some — and, indeed, you could almost say that Nathan Harris is one of the lucky ones. He lived; he will get better and walk again (though with a limp); if they’ll let him, he may even go back into service. Yet the Sgt. Harris we meet is an angry and tormented young man who feels betrayed by how his life has turned out. He admits that he joined the Marines basically because he wanted to “kill people,” and now, back in the States, the landscape of Wal-Mart banality depresses him. He’s caught between a war that mangled him but a war in which he feels at home and the civilian life he isn’t remotely prepared for. Hell and Back Again is a vivid and moving testament to what’s really going on in Afghanistan, and in the hearts and minds of the soldiers fighting there.

* * * *

In The Guard, Brendan Gleeson, with twinkly eyes and a brogue as thick as Guinness, plays a solitary middle-aged police officer in the Irish village of Galway who is meant to be a real character — a pudgy, complacent enforcer with a crazy-flaky streak inside. You never know just what he’s going to say; yet because the off-key observations and insults fly out of his mouth with sitcom precision, in another sense you never don’t know what he’s going to say. That’s why the movie is a Sundance crowd-pleaser. Gleeson, investigating a murder, is teamed with Don Cheadle, as an American FBI agent trying to bring down a drug ring (the crime plot is rote in the extreme). Despite its quirky Irish trappings, The Guard is really that familiar old thing, a buddy cop movie. But Gleeson, an actor who knows how to use his fleshy dyspeptic squint like a grouchy Benny Hill, has a grand old time playing an outwardly conservative small-town cop whose secret weapon is that he has no guilt about anything.

Read more:

Sundance: Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven, and Thomas Jane talk about their divisive movie ‘I Melt with You’

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