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D: Ryan Moody, Mark Columbus, Sarah Jean Kruchowski, Shadae Lamar Smith, Vanita Shastry, Simon Savelyev, Jeremy David White / 97m

Cast: James Franco, Abigail Spencer, Rico Rodriguez, Matthew Modine, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Kristen Wiig, Tony Cox, Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Parrack, Natalie Portman, Thomas Mann, Keir Gilchrist, Bo Mitchell, Jacob Loeb, Kelsey Ford, Tyler Labine

A collection of seven short movies adapted from the short story collection of the same name by Robert Boswell, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards is that inopportune beast, a movie with no clear, discernible focus other than a plan to relate various tales of longing and regret, and all with the same dour approach to each of the “slices of life” that are depicted. A project that was assembled by graduate students of James Franco’s UCLA moviemaking class, it’s telling that the movie was first seen at the Atlanta Film Festival back in March 2015, but is only now receiving a limited release in the US. It’s an arthouse movie, structured in a way that makes it seem more knowing and truthful than it actually is, and which proves only moderately successful in its aims and ambitions.

The seven tales on display are a mixed bunch, both in terms of their content, and in their relation to each other. The first, A Walk in Winter, sees Conrad (Franco), a young man returning to his hometown to identify the remains of a body that may be that of his long-missing mother. An extended visit to the sheriff’s office reveals a childhood beset by abuse and further mystery. The second, Guests, concerns a young boy, Charlie (Rodriguez), who has to deal with his ailing, cancer-stricken father (Modine) and a school bully at the same time. He’s the quintessential chubby kid who’s picked on because he’s different (thanks to his dad), but he’s not the pushover everyone thinks he is. In the third tale, Almost Not Beautiful, sisters Lisa (Mara) and Amanda (Tamblyn) revisit aspects of their childhood while also trying to reconnect after spending some time apart. In doing so they discover a mutual dependency that they’d forgotten about. The fourth tale, Miss Famous, features a maid, Monica (Wiig), whose antipathy towards her clients provokes fantasies where she is rich and famous.

In the fifth, Lacunae, a young man, Paul (Parrack), also returns to his hometown, ostensibly to see his parents, but also to see an ex-girlfriend, Laura (Portman), who may have given birth to their son. Paul is adamant that the child isn’t his, but he can’t resist seeing for himself. In the sixth tale, Smoke, three friends (Gilchrist, Mann, Mitchell) sit round a camp fire and tell bogus stories of their sexual exploits. Each is seeking approbation from the other two, and each story is clearly a longed-for fantasy. And in the final tale, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, another young man, this time called Keen (Loeb), attends a party where he not only hooks up with a young woman, Lila (Ford), but also finds himself in serious trouble with the law. Each tale is bookended by clips and randomly assembled stills from old home movies and family celebrations, and all of which adds a melancholy feel to the material, and which also serves to provide a sense that these tales take place in a time and a place where nostalgia doesn’t provide a soothing balm, but quite the opposite.

With any collection of stories that are meant to have a unifying theme, that theme needs to be evident – even if it’s to varying degrees – in order for the overall movie to work effectively, and also to offset the obvious problem whereby the viewer is forced to reinvest their attention every ten to fifteen minutes in a new story and new characters, while also attempting to assimilate each tale into an organic whole. This is where any portmanteau movie succeeds or fails, but in this case, it’s very nearly a draw, with three stories lacking any appreciable impact by themselves, three other stories working effectively on their own, and one having a foot in both camps. As a whole, though, the movie remains sporadically engaging, with its broader themes of memory and fantasy pushed to the fore when its more telling themes of disappointment and paralysed ambition should be front and centre. This isn’t a feelgood movie, and nor does it come with any message of hope for its characters. Mistakes have been made, and more mistakes will be made as they move forward with their lives. The question is, will any of them learn from their mistakes?

With childhood trauma leading the way in explaining why these characters behave and struggle as they do, each director approaches their tale in a way that, unfortunately, isolates each one from the rest. There’s no symmetry to the stories, and no unifying directorial approach (other than that there is no unifying approach), all of which leaves each episode feeling under-developed or prosaic. Despite some good performances – Franco, Tamblyn, Wiig, Portman, Loeb – the movie relates each tale as if it contains a singular message within itself, and a broader message for everyone to pick up as well (though just when is difficult to work out). But the problem is that with only three of the stories working effectively enough on their own – and they are A Walk in Winter, Guests, and The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards – too much of the movie feels like there should be more to it, and too much of the movie feels like it should be making more of a connection with the viewer.

That said, there’s no denying the ambition and some of the talent on display behind the camera – Moody, Columbus, and White stand out in particular – but it’s all in service to material that isn’t as compelling as it should be given Boswell’s talent as a writer (he also provides the movie with a jaundiced, earnest narration). Some viewers may find some of the tales hard to decipher, while others may feel there’s no need for any deciphering at all, but what is clear is that some amount of interpretation is required, but that it won’t benefit the viewer in the long run. Sometimes, a teenager bragging about having sex with an older woman, is purely wish fulfilment and nothing more. It doesn’t need to resonate, and it doesn’t here. This, ultimately, is where the movie falters, by failing to resonate. And no matter how much effort has been spent, and no matter how much artistic endeavour is on display, when the tale itself isn’t able to carry the viewer forward then it’s time to move on to the next one… unless the next one has the same problem.

Rating: 5/10 – a great idea for a graduate project that proves to be less than a great idea for a movie as a whole, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards wants to be engaging and meaningful, but hasn’t the consistency to make it all work; some tolerance is required to get through the more sluggish and unaffecting episodes, but despite a clutch of good performances, it remains a frustrating experience and one that should be approached with caution.

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