If I only had a brain
Gus Van Sant’s Restless suffers from terrible timing, among other things. It comes to us hot on the heels of 50/50, Jonathan Levine and Will Reiser’s achingly funny movie about a young writer trying to cope with cancer at a time when his life has barely gotten underway. Restless covers similar ground, and it looks banal and clichéd by contrast—but the truth is, it would probably look that way even without the comparison.
Henry Hopper plays Enoch Brae, a teenager with a penchant for attending the funerals of strangers. In bits and pieces, Jason Lew’s script fills us in on why: Enoch is the sole survivor of an automobile accident that killed his parents and landed him in a three-month coma, during which he missed his parents’ funeral and “never got to say goodbye.” He now lives alone with his aunt Mabel (Jane Adams), whom he blames both for making him miss the funeral and for being the occasion of the fatal car trip in the first place (she won some kind of award and Enoch’s parents wanted to be there). Enoch seeks to find closure (and perhaps assuage his angry survivor guilt) by attending other people’s funerals in place of the one he missed, the one that really mattered.
It’s at one of these services—for somebody named Chris, who evidently died young of cancer—that Enoch meets Annabelle Cotton (Mia Wasikowska). Annabelle seems to fall in like-at-first-sight with Enoch. She strikes up a conversation, but he tries to sidle out with averted eyes: “Do I know you?” Her reply is a saucy challenge: “Does anybody here know you?” Enoch squirms away, knowing that whether he likes it or not, this forward girl has his number.
Annabelle has little trouble finding Enoch again; she merely checks the newspaper for the next funeral he’s likely to crash. She saves him when he’s accosted by a suspicious funeral director and he finds himself drawn to her in spite of himself. He even tells her about Hiroshi.
Hiroshi Takahashi (Ryo Kase) is—at least until Annabelle comes along—the only friend Enoch has. But he’s not exactly a person, really, at least not anymore. He’s the ghost of a World War II Japanese kamikaze pilot, and he’s been hanging around Enoch ever since he came out of his coma. They sit in Enoch’s bedroom and play endless games of Battleship, which Hiroshi always wins.
Is Hiroshi real, or just a figment of Enoch’s imagination to sublimate his desire to embrace death? If Annabelle thinks Hiroshi is imaginary, she doesn’t say so; she takes Enoch’s story at face value. But then, she knows a little about having to embrace death. Annabelle has brain cancer, and the doctors have given her three months to live.
Whatever personal experience, if any, writer Jason Lew brought to this, his first screenplay, seems at the very least to be filtered through the kind of things somebody might pick up from the viewing list of any reasonably thorough film school. The death-obsessed young man urged to enjoy life by a wiser, more spirited female is straight out of Harold and Maude. The cringing introvert coaxed out of his shell by first love harks back to Liza Minnelli’s breakout movie The Sterile Cuckoo (although a film school would have to be very thorough if that were on the curriculum). And the cancer angle? Well, we could cite Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing from 1973, but no need to go that far; just tune into the Lifetime Network almost any day of the week.
Director Van Sant does what he can to redeem Lew’s jejune and derivative script, but there’s only so much to be done, and the movie eventually becomes pretty half-hearted. Henry Hopper never banishes the audience’s urge to shake Enoch and shout at him to grow up, for heaven’s sake. Hiroshi is a symbolic contrivance, and that’s how Ryo Kase plays him. Only Mia Wasikowska (showing a bracing versatility after Jane Eyre and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) brings any real life to the movie.
And ironically, Annabelle is the one who’s dying.