PARK CITY - Mark Pellington isn't just a good music video director. He's one of the very best practitioners the medium has to offer.
 
A resume that includes "Jeremy," "One," "Rooster" and more will always make Pellington a stylist worthy of attention, even if his cinematic efforts have declined from 1999's "Arlington Road" to 2002's "The Mothman Prophesies" to 2008's truly awful "Henry Poole Is Here."
 
Pellington's latest feature, the Sundance premiere "I Melt With You," is a return to his music video roots. "I Met With You" has a terrific soundtrack of New Wave, punk and '80s hits and almost every song is given full video treatment, played for their full duration and at a volume that often supersedes any dialogue in the scene.
 
Unfortunately, they're all the exact same music video. "I Melt With You" is over two hours of cocaine-snorting, pill-popping, alcohol-swilling middle-age crisis montages, punctuated periodically with The Whining of the Dispossessed Upper-Middle Class White Male. Some horrible things happen that cause the whining to increase and the excess to go from hedonism to self-destruction, but as beautifully photographed as the entire movie is, the monotony sets in early and only becomes worse as the days passing on-screen begin to feel like days passing in your theater seat.
 
"I Melt With You" is one of the worst films I've seen so far at Sundance, not as amateurish as "The Ledge," but perhaps more offensive for its fine cast and its technical professionalism.
 
Full review after the break...
 
Written, to some degree at least, by Glenn Porter, "I Melt With You" focuses on a quartet of college buddies approaching their mid-40s who gather together each year for one lost week of debauchery and complaining about the state of their lives. Or maybe in previous years, the four guys have just had a good time and this was the first year that the cocaine, beer and amyl nitrate transitioned these guys into mopey, confessional mode. Maybe in past years these guys have just gotten together and had fun. If that's the case, thanks for inviting us to the party *this* year, Mark Pellington.
 
The four guys are just broadly sketched "types." Have you every seen movie or TV character who had one reasonably successful novel, but struggled to write their second novel? We've got one of those in Thomas Jane's Richard. There's also a corrupt business something-or-other facing a government investigation (Jeremy Piven), a doctor who wanted to save lives, but ended up a drug pusher (Rob Lowe) and a gay guy defined by weakness and tragedy (Christian McKay). The get a really nice coastal rental in Big Sur and for a couple days, they over-indulge to have fun and then Bad Things start happening and they over-indulge because they can't fathom anything better to do under the circumstances.
 
I don't care how much digital trickery and music video pyrotechnics Pellington throws on the screen, "I Melt With You" isn't the fresh-and-new gender-defining epic the director clearly intends it to be. "I Melt With You" will always be part of a tried-and-true genre, the Ill-Fated Male Getaway. In Ill-Fated Male Getaway movies, some small group of male protagonists kiss their wives and kids good-bye for a vacation, leaving domestic responsibility and the emasculation of modern life behind in order for some period of homosocial bonding intended to help them -- pardon my French -- get their balls back. There are many ways to view "ill-fated," because "The Hangover" would be a prime recent example of the genre and things mostly turn out OK in that movie. The same can't be said of something like "Very Bad Things" or Walter Hill's excellent "Southern Comfort," where serious tragedy is a required catalyst for the recovery of masculine identity. There are many more entries in the Ill-Fated Male Getaway genre, but I hope we can all agree that the genre's pinnacle is probably "Deliverance."
 
James Dickey's novel and John Boorman's film adaptation of "Deliverance" are classics that still play today because they're simultaneously timeless, but also inextricably linked to a specific moment in time and, more importantly, a specific crisis in male identity. 
 
Part of why "I Melt With You" is so dreadful is because Porter's script is all about making references to the past, but has no meaningful connection to the present. And even its connections to the past are limited to musical references. There's absolutely no reason why "I Melt With You" should be taking place in 2010. Even the corrupt corporate character is so loosely sketched that he isn't being tied into the recent financial crisis. None of these three men are being tied into anything contemporary in any way, so we're left to wonder why they're all so bound and determined to bitch about the plight of being a pretty white man in 2011. Your life didn't work out exactly the way you planned it when you were in college? Boo-freakin'-hoo. There has to be a reason why these characters are so unrelentingly anhedonic, but that reason is not examined. There's an off-chance that Porter and Pellington intended to make a movie about four insufferably smug people with fairly decent lives who like to bitch about how hard it is to be them. But I'm skeptical. The movie takes its "I am man, hear me bore" ethos mighty seriously. 
 
It's not like Porter and Pellington are the only people exploring issues of 21st Century male identity. "Californication," "Hung" and "Men of a Certain Age" aren't shows I love, but they're all shows doing a better job of exploring what happens to Alpha Males when they reach the point in life when they're starting to map out that expectations vs. reality graph. Is it a coincidence that "Hung" stars Thomas Jane and Rob Lowe is guesting on "Californication" this season? Probably not. 
 
As utterly facile as "I Melt With You" is and as much as I hated their characters above and beyond the intent of the filmmakers, I don't want to take away from a quartet of lead performances which are, if nothing else, entirely committed. I'd single out Lowe, in particular, for a performance that had me recalling what I consider to be his career-best work in "Bad Influence." As great as he was on "West Wing" and as decent and wasted as he was on "Brothers & Sisters," much of TV work has interpreted his attractive sincerity as earnestness, while I've always preferred the Lowe performances that emphasize placid amorality, that find a cold, soullessness in his dark eyes. Lowe ends up being the most interesting actor in "I Melt With You," even if Jane and Piven are giving "bigger" performances.
 
"I Melt With You" has almost no use for women, but it still attracted a number of attractive actresses to serve as window-dressing, led by Carla Gugino, stuck with a character who usurps Terrence Howard's Hollis as The Dumbest Cop At Sundance. TV fans will relish the brief appearances by the likes of Arielle Kebbel, Rebecca Creskoff and Melora Hardin. Porn fans will appreciate the brief appearance by Sasha Grey, who dances seductively, disrobes and then the Very Bad Thing That Happens in motion.
 
We've all been to parties that have gotten out of control, but most of us know there are two different kinds of out-of-control parties: There's the kind that you wouldn't dare leave, either because you're a bit crazy yourself or because you're amused to see who's going to end up in the most ridiculous circumstance. And then there's the kind where you look around, see the chaos and say, "I don't care if they hired the best darned DJ in the world, if I stick around any longer, somebody's going to puke on me. Or worse." "I Melt With You" is the second kind of out-of-control party. That probably explains the number of walk-outs during Monday's Sundance premiere.
 
[Note: Those two types of out-of-control parties? There's a lot of subjectivity involved. I hated "I Melt With You." I'm assuming the dozens of walk-outs also hated what they saw. But I know that some people loved it. "I Melt With You" is intellectually vacuous, but if you ignore that, its visual contortions might be interpreted as "visceral" or "trippy" rather than "obnoxious" and "grating." To each their own!]