The Year of Spectacular Men is populated by such a charming, lovable core cast that it remains entertaining despite some of its less effective storytelling tics.
Lea Thompson’s directorial debut, The Year of Spectacular Men is something of a family affair. It stars the ‘80s favorite’s two daughters Madelyn (who wrote the screenplay and composed the music) and Zoey Deutch; their father, Pretty in Pink helmer Howard Deutch, is credited as a producer. But this isn’t just nepotism. It’s a joyous, infectious film made stronger by the family’s chemistry.
Madelyn plays Izzy Klein, a young woman fresh out of college who spends her first year as a bona fide adult bouncing between subplots, relationships and aimless wandering. Her baby sister Sabrina (her real sister Zoey) is a successful actress whose boyfriend Sebastian (Avan Jogia) is also moderately famous on television. Her mother (Thompson) is a Yogi in a nebulous “soul walker” relationship with a free spirit named Amythyst (Melissa Bolona). Once the film gets into a groove, it primarily focuses on this unconventional support system and her closeness with her family, but that isn’t how it starts.
When the film begins, Madelyn feels less like a real character and more the center of a crude and self-aware Woody Allen pastiche, with intermittent voiceover, a jazzy score and confessional cutaways from an army of suitors. The first half feels like a frustrating missed opportunity. If it’s purposefully meant to poke a little fun at the lackadaisical plotting of Woody’s films or the homogeneity of his many, many male imitators, it’s a shrewd send-up, but even in jest, this structure is as boring as it is cloying. Outside of Jesse Bradford turning in a semi-decent Justin Theroux impersonation as Izzy’s ex-boyfriend Aaron, the “spectacular men” of the title are more annoying than compelling, let alone interesting.
But once the film moves closer to Izzy’s immediate circle and not just her myriad love interests, it vastly improves. Through interactions as Sabrina and Sebastian’s third wheel, Izzy comes alive. No longer just the requisite authorial stand-in who spews quirky dialogue and makes bad decisions, she becomes more relatable and three dimensional. She’s more than just neuroses, an irrational fear of top sheets and an unhealthy obsession with “The X-Files.” It’s clear that she comes off so stunted as the less responsible big sister because of unprocessed family trauma she’s protecting her younger sibling from.
Smartly, Thompson doesn’t shift the film’s overall tone to tackle that heavier subject matter. The film’s third act handles the more dramatic plot developments with the same familiar comedic tenor that keeps the film moving along at a likable clip. The secret to making a movie with no discernible plot watchable is to have captivating characters the audience wants to spend time with. Once this film hones in on the characters we actually like and want to see interact with one another, it’s gold. Thompson and her daughters are absolutely magnetic together, especially in a lovely tableau of the Klein women eating ice cream and drinking 4Loko together.
While not always laugh out loud funny, The Year of Spectacular Men is populated by such a charming, lovable core cast that it remains entertaining despite some of its less effective storytelling tics and a largely unearned conclusion. It functions best when it shifts away from the repetitive Lena Dunham-lite millennial navel-gazing and transforms into a more heart nourishing family dramedy, a la late period Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Perhaps it would be too much to ask for Thompson to direct several more movies written by and starring her brilliant daughters, but that would be a welcome breath of fresh air in the current indie landscape.