Writer and director Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd The Mighty Boosh) claims copious influences for his feature debut and the film can’t help but remind us of other indie-flavored coming-of-age flicks like Rushmore and Harold and Maude but Submarine is a decidedly and endearingly unique film. In a season where most of the films we flock to see merit descriptors like “super ” “action-packed” and various forms of the word “huge ” Ayoade’s little dark comedy creeps along below the water line ready to pop up and deliver a delightful surprise for summer movie goers.
Adapted from the novel by Joe Dunthorne Submarine tells the story of Oliver (Craig Roberts) a rather strange highly-intelligent 15 year-old boy who’s determined to lose his virginity by his next birthday rescue his parents’ ailing marriage and to see it all retold in an epic New Wave-y cinematic tribute. This idea that his life will be retold on film flows throughout the film contrasting Oliver’s grandiose retelling of his life against its stark realities. Ayoade allows us to see how unreliably Oliver tells his own story but as the plot thickens we tend to get almost as lost in Oliver’s fantasies as he is.
Oliver’s virginity-ending quest leads him to his girlfriend an eczema-riddled pyromaniac named Joanna (Yasmin Paige). He’s picked her out as being most likely to acquiesce to his proposal thanks to various calculated social factors and thus their adolescent romance begins. While Oliver is exploring his relationship with Joanna – greatly consisting of her burning the hair off his legs with matches while he reimagines their romance as captured idyllically on super 8 film – Mr. and Mrs. Tate’s (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) relationship is slowly crumbling. Jill Tate’s old flame Graham a new age life coach with a useless theory about colors (Paddy Considine) moves in across the way sending Jill into a bout of reminiscence and a longing for her youth that stands to threaten her marriage. Oliver being the precocious young man he is is determined to barrel in headfirst to fix his parents’ ailing marriage which he’s been monitoring for months using the dimmer switch setting in their bedroom. (And it’s been on the sex-less setting for quite a while.)
Of course the most obvious reason this film works is Ayoade’s tight script and meticulous direction but the lynchpin is certainly the fantastic cast. Roberts and Paige though both very young fill the screen like two adults trapped in adolescent bodies. Tayor is fantastic as always but Hawkins ably treads the wafer-thin line between goofy hilarity and the complete and total sincerity of a housewife in crisis. Considine’s Graham gets a little cartoonish at times but those moments are reigned in with a little help from Hawkins.
Ayoade lends a sort of film-brat aesthetic to Submarine playing with French New Wave elements and giving nods to films like Love in the Afternoon. Of course the fact that Oliver is so inclined to remember his life in film scenes helps to unleash the techniques in Ayoade’s repertoire. In other settings this combination may have felt a little jumbled but the story almost begs for it here. Bolstering Ayoade’s plethora of techniques is the style he chose for the film. It’s a bit retro but not overly so. Ayoade situates Oliver’s gloomy seaside town in a timeless space that feels simultaneously old fashioned and completely fresh.
Finally tying all the elements together with a big bow is the soundtrack comprised of original songs by Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys. While he had some of the tunes composed before Ayoade brought him in to work on the film the tracks perfectly complement Submarine’s style providing the cinematic drama that Oliver would approve of without undermining the understated reality that he’s so determined not to see.
It certainly doesn’t feel like Submarine is Ayoade’s debut. He’s done his fair share of writing and directing getting behind the scenes on a few British television shows and directing music videos for The Arctic Monkeys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs but this film feels like it comes from someone who’s been in the feature film business for years. It’s seemingly without glaring rookie mistakes or hiccups. And while the retro indie dark comedy vein often lends itself to overdrawn quirk Submarine doesn’t.
Film-brat elements aside at its heart Submarine is a fiercely genuine slightly complicated and completely lovable film.
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all...hell is about to break loose! It starts when a snowstorm grounds all planes at Chicago’s fictional Hoover International Airport. Nobody’s happy to be potentially spending Xmas at an airport but least of all are the Davenport siblings Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) and his little sis Katherine (Dominique Saldana) as well as airport security boss Oliver (Lewis Black). The two kids are escorted to the airport’s “Unaccompanied Minors Lounge ” where kids run wild and terrorize pushover Zach Van Bourke (Wilmer Valderrama) who acts as chief airport babysitter. One look at the madness is all it takes for Spencer and Katherine to bust out along with fellow kiddie anarchists Charlie (Tyler James Williams) Timothy (Brett Kelly) Donna (Quinn Shephard) and Grace (Gina Mantegna). They embark on a pratfall-heavy game of cat and mouse with Oliver who is the Grinch to their collective Santa Clause as they try and salvage Christmas--and their families. Unaccompanied Minors makes some odd but admirable choices when it comes to the cast with virtually every single actor attempting a “Frat Pack” mutiny--Daily Show mainstay Black is joined by “correspondent” Rob Corddry as the Davenports’ Hummer-hating dad not to mention parts from The Office’s B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling Arrested Development’s Tony Hale and Jessica Walter SNL’s Rob Riggle and Kristen Wiig Paget Brewster David Koechner and a rare Kids in the friggin’ Hall (Kevin McDonald Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney) sighting. But the “Who’s that?” cameos aside the screen time is hogged by Black Valderrama and the children. Black the notoriously vulgar curmudgeon of a comedian shows great range and skill by dulling his shtick down but not so much that the kids watching won’t crack up while Valderrama’s performance is the same as his role--that of a bumbling easily overmatched lackey. With all the proverbial child actors in the mix it can seem a little Star Search-y but Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) steals most scenes with his amazing overall talent while Mantegna (Joe’s daughter) fares well too. Kelly (the bullied kid in Bad Santa) is exploited for his physicality and Christopher will likely go on to be a great actor even if he seems too seasoned at such a young age. The reason for the off-the-beaten-path cast is simple: director Paul Feig. The occasional actor has in the past directed episodes of The Office and the late Arrested Development Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks. It also might explain why he fell for a script--by Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark--that takes a few stabs at grown-up comedy (i.e. Corddry’s character has a car that runs on vegetable oil). Such jokes will be lost on the exclusively preadolescent audience but almost all else will reel them in. Feig also seems adept at making the oft-unfunny (physical pratfalls) somewhat funny and he does so with little mention of bodily functions. Of course he stays true to the formula but all kid flicks are the ultimate exercises in contrivance--Feig just chooses to treat the viewers like kids instead of idiots.
Set in a whimsical version of the untamed West Range zeroes in on a quaint dairy farm called Patch of Heaven run by the kindly Pearl (voiced by Carole Cook). Life on the prairie farm is near perfect for its resident dairy cows--including the organized leader Mrs. Calloway (voiced by Judi Dench) the touchy-feely Grace (voiced by Jennifer Tilly) and the newcomer sassy show cow Maggie (voiced by Roseanne Barr)--as well as for the rest of Patch of Heaven's colorful denizens. Their idyllic existence is threatened when the farm is unexpectedly put up for auction to pay back taxes so the determined cows scheme to nab notorious castle rustler Alameda Slim (voiced by Randy Quaid) and turn him in for reward money which will pay off the taxes and save the farm. They set out on a high-spirited adventure across the rugged western landscape to catch Slim in the act. At the same time they also have to try to outsmart a hero-worshipping stallion named Buck (voiced by Cuba Gooding Jr.) who wants to catch Slim himself to get all the glory. Can Maggie Grace and Mrs. Calloway hogtie the dastardly villain hand him over to the authorities and collect the reward money in time to save their precious Patch of Heaven? Of course they can dagnabbit--they're cows aren't they?
However mundane Home on the Range is at least Disney has great casting sense. The three lead actresses seem to truly enjoy finding the bovine within. Roseanne who's been out of the spotlight for a while delivers Maggie's zingers with zest (referring to her udders Maggie quips "Yeah they're real. Quit staring") and as Maggie's cohort Tilly's naturally high squeaky voice lends credibility to Grace's new age-isms and non-confrontational ways. The real surprise comes from the Oscar-winning Dench who gives Mrs. Calloway that certain highbrow British sensibility while also allowing her to butt heads with Maggie every once in awhile. (One wonders though how a British cow made it to the Wild West?) In supporting roles Gooding hams it up as Buck a horse trying to prove he is a true hero with rather skewed methods while Quaid bullies torments and yes even yodels as Alameda Slim--yodeling being the bad guy's technique for hypnotizing and luring the cattle into his evil clutches. Standout vocal cameo goes to Steve Buscemi as a cold-hearted fast-talking city slicker (the bug-eyed character even looks a little like him).
Under Will Finn and John Sanford's direction Home on the Range has a heartening message of hearth and home decent performances and nothing blatantly wrong with the story structure which hits the right marks despite being a tad too cutesy. Then why is the film so lackluster? Maybe because just like last year's Brother Bear Range seems factory-made. The animation is certainly sub-par with flat colors and 2-D rudimentary drawings more suitable for a Disney theme-park ride. Last year's Teacher's Pet as well as most Japanime these days proves hand-drawn animation can--and better--go out on a limb if its to compete with the marvels of CGI but Disney seems stuck in a rut (and splitting with Pixar won't help matters). Luckily some catchy Western tunes help Range git along composed by Oscar winner Alan Menken who makes his first triumphant return to Disney since his '90s heyday that included composing music for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. It also doesn't hurt that six original songs are performed by country greats including k.d. lang Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw.