(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Sam Davis (Michael Angarano) convinces his former best friend to spend a weekend with him to rekindle their friendship at an elegant beachside estate owned by a famous documentary filmmaker (Lee Pace). However, it soon becomes clear that Sam is secretly infatuated with his ex, Zoe (Uma Thurman), who is now the filmmaker’s fiancee, and that his true intention is to thwart their impending nuptials. As Sam’s plan begins to unravel, he is forced to realize how complicated love and friendship can be.
– From DVD Production Notes
When I was eighteen I saw Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game (1939) and couldn’t have been more bored. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that films centering on the privileged have never interested me- at least not without an outsider’s perspective.
There is one thing that has been recurring in Z To A, however. I have enjoyed (and enjoy again and again and again) stories about a privileged event being gate-crashed by the truth. It happens in Melancholia, Rachel Getting Married and Thomas Vinterberg’s excellent The Celebration (my next entry), but Ceremony sets itself apart from the rest. All of these films are a series of uncomfortable confrontations between family members and/or friends with different issues at stake, but this one is the funniest. It’s also the least heart-rending.
Michael Angarano plays Sam Davis with the sensitivity, wit and troubling bravado of a young Sam Rockwell. He postures, manipulates and condescends his way into getting what he wants, all while pretending he’s some amalgamation of Jay Gatsby and Holden Caulfield. Angarano is an ace at playing this while keeping Sam vulnerable and understandable. He makes it clear that his actions aren’t due to malice, but out of need.
(Side note: when I found out that the role was meant for Jesse Eisenberg I was relieved it didn’t happen. Ceremony would have been an entirely different film- most likely awkward and insufferable.)
In some ways it should be easy to hate Sam (and some viewers do). It’s obvious he is using his friend, Marshall (Reece Thompson) for a free ride out of the city and into a heap of trouble. What saves him is how Angarano plays the character. No one is threatened by him as much as annoyed. You also know he will fall on his face at some point, and can’t help but wince at his attempts to sound superior or grown-up.
This is part of the genius in Ceremony: writing, casting and direction. There is a strength and uniqueness the actors bring to each character, and like a good play there is enough subtext to clue you into their backstories and why they behave the way they do. Uma Thurman does an excellent job balancing a character who is as selfish as she is affectionate and straight-forward with Sam, warning him to stop before it’s too late. Everything about their characterizations prove they’re mismatched, not only concerning their age but their height difference, their outlook and what they see in one another.
But Sam isn’t one to give up, leading to an uncomfortable yet poignant series of events. Over the course of three days he, Zoe and everyone else cope with them in their own dysfunctional way, crossing paths with each other and revealing who they really are.
The first character who comes to mind is the discarded Marshall, the most put-upon of the bunch. Watching him this time around was interesting because I’ve experienced similar, shitty fish-out-of-water situations, albeit without the mind-bending drugs.
In spite of everything Marshall proves to be the strongest and the least foolish of the group, saving someone’s life while he believes he can hardly salvage his own. At the other end of the spectrum is a life that needs more salvaging than anyone else: Zoe’s party animal brother, Teddy (Jake Johnson), who drinks incessantly and nearly drowns while chasing dolphins. Johnson flawlessly embodies a character I had long imagined but never thought would be brought to life: troubled, charismatic, funny, and a delightful drunk. Watching him in this film is a gift, and each time I watch Ceremony I savor it, especially his last scene where he waxes philosophical then notes: “Well, I’m sober.”
Lastly there is Lee Pace as Whit, Zoe’s high-spirited and egotistical fiancé. As usual Pace turns in a singular performance, capturing something completely different from his previous characters (see The Fall or Possession). He could easily be pegged as Sam’s nemesis, but this isn’t The Wedding Crashers. In spite of his egotism Whit proves to be more caring, forgiving and loyal than you would assume. It’s clear he doesn’t fear or resent his rival, and even his most territorial gestures are a way to protect this kid rather than tear him down.
Ceremony ends in an unusual way, considering how most films deal with disrupted nuptials. It becomes an example of recognizing what love is (or isn’t), and how being grown up doesn’t mean you have it figured out. By the end there are no clean breaks between any of the characters, only new possibilities, which seems best considering where they started.
The film was written and directed by Max Winkler (son of Henry) and was his first time in the director’s chair. I hope he returns to it soon, despite how overlooked his debut has been. Ceremony that kind of movie that you should have seen but didn’t, like Jesus’ Son (1999)- more solid than its big budget counterparts but slipping through the cracks before you know it exists.
I wouldn’t let this one slide, though. If you haven’t seen Ceremony it’s definitely worth your time.