The Vanishing of Sidney Hall

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall

There’s a lot of mysteries to solve here, but the most important one is whether or not anyone will find a worse film released in 2018.

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall

1 / 5

It’s hard to recall a film whose ambitions are so diametrically opposed to the skill and imagination of its maker as The Vanishing of Sidney Hall. Lofty goals from a rookie auteur are nothing new to independent film, but it’s rare for a movie to aim this high and fail so spectacularly in the process.

From the outset, it’s clear that first time writer-director Shawn Christensen thinks he has conceived a powerful, sprawling narrative about the nature of creativity and the relationship between tragedy and art. In reality, he and co-writer Jason Dolan have written a needlessly complex screenplay in service of little more than the furtherance of an unhealthy obsession with white male novelists and their overblown sense of importance. That the film stars talented performers and is visually serviceable would be laudable were the story being told not so terrible as to be borderline offensive.

Logan Lerman plays the Sidney Hall of the title, a young writer whose life unfolds before our eyes in three disparate timelines. We see Sidney as a brilliant teenager whose intellect puts him at odds with all of his teachers save for Duane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a history teacher who encourages him to write more. There’s also the Sidney in his early 20s, having written the great American novel (nauseatingly titled Suburban Tragedy) that’s gotten him nominated for a Pulitzer, but is quickly turning into the kind of phenomenon that drives authors mad. Finally, in his early 30s, Sidney is a ghost, a bedraggled, bearded loner and alcoholic who roams the countryside with his dog, walking into bookstores and libraries, burning copies of his work while being hunted by a man simply known as The Stranger (Kyle Chandler).

Setting aside the cringey introduction of the youngest Sidney, the initial framework set up is fascinating. Each timeline has its own set of mysteries to unravel, from the curious friendship Sidney has in high school with a jock named Brett (Blake Jenner), to the dissolution of his marriage in his 20s to the book burning in his 30s. But there’s no rhyme or reason to why we intercut between the different arcs. Scenes just bleed into one another with no real structure, with Lerman’s facial hair the only way to distinguish time and place. The movie becomes an overlong slog with too many spinning plates all crashing down on the same down note in the same sullen sequence of tragic revelations in the third act.

It’s honestly the most irritating film in recent memory for how many overdramatic twists Christensen stacks up by the film’s end. Over the course of two hours, no character gets fleshed out very well, least of all Sidney, but almost every single other person in his life has some tragedy befall them, whether it’s an actual loss or the cruel joke of how poorly written they are. No one has written a woman more pathetically than Christensen and Dolan have written Michelle Monaghan as Sidney’s mother, but Elle Fanning as his manic pixie dream girl spouse comes perilously close.

How someone could waste this many talented actors and this much screen time for a film with the cumulative dramatic weight of a solipsistic short story that wouldn’t find room in even the most forgiving collegiate lit mag is astonishing, but what’s most difficult to swallow is knowing Christensen really thought he had something profound on his hands. The film lifts so much from the mythos of Salinger and other reclusive writers without finding anything of substance to say about any of them. This is a film where reading a Wikipedia summary of every plot reveal in succession would conjure only labored laughter, despite how objectively sad the subject matter may be. It’s that fake deep, pointless and, quite frankly, embarrassing. It’s a shame Lerman chose this role and this film to help him transition into more meaningful dramatic fare only for him to somehow be upstaged by, of all people, Blake fucking Jenner.

There’s a lot of mysteries to solve here, but the most important one is whether or not anyone will find a worse film released in 2018.

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