“Spent” — emotionally, spiritually and financially — is how the characters feel in this portrait of twentysomething Angelenos grappling with addiction and intimacy. Pic covers familiar territory unevenly, but Gil Cates Jr. directs his freshman feature with a mostly assured hand. Now playing in limited release after its spring premiere at the SXSW Fest, “Spent” will be a confident calling card for the well-connected Cates.
Yarn opens with gambling addict Max (Jason London, showing a new grittiness) stealing away to phone his bookie while g.f. Brigette (Charlie Spradling) sleeps. Brigette, as it turns out, has a drinking problem, downing wine with brunch as she chirps, “It’s five o’clock — somewhere.”
Consumed with their own issues, Max’s writing partner Doug (Phill Lewis) naively pursues Jack Nicholson for their movie, and buddy Nathan (Erin Beaux) can’t stop crowing about the “gummy bear-sized” nipples on his latest conquest. Meanwhile, Max’s compulsively attentive roommate Grant (James Parks) is hopelessly in the closet.
Fed up with Brigette’s drinking, Max issues an ultimatum: either she stays sober for a month or he’ll leave her. She agrees, provided he can go a month without gambling. But when Doug brings Brigette to a Lakers game in the hope that she’ll entice Nicholson (who’s unseen), her resolve weakens — and Max fumes. Still, he’s not prepared for what ensues back at his apartment.
Cates treads the difficult line of black comedy gingerly, but makes a few missteps once the story shifts drastically, as if he can’t decide on its tone. What smells, at times, like “American Pie” — specifically, the running gag about the enormous, much-ballyhooed nipples on Nathan’s lover — turns into a half-baked after-school special when it lingers on the dangers of addiction or closeted sexuality.
And yet, pic undercuts its moral didacticism by making its characters’ lifestyles compellingly attractive. Max’s gambling seems to cost him neither his friendships nor his luxury SUV; mysteriously, he even has a benefactor (Barbara Barrie, in an underwritten part) who cheerfully loans him $3,000, no questions asked.
Brigette, for her part, passes out after a night of bingeing but shows no sign of the psychological wounds she’s covering with alcohol. Only Grant reveals an inkling of his torment, and Parks’ sensitive perf feels the deepest and most thoughtful of the lot.
Though “Spent” could have used a more thoroughly considered tone, its production values make the most of a limited budget. Cates’ choice to make an indie is both noteworthy and laudable, given his birthright and a name that could ensure his calls are returned (if not fling open studio doors). That said, “Spent” is a Cates family effort: Gil Jr.’s brother Jon edited, his late uncle Joe exec produced and Gil Sr. has a cameo. Other celebrated showbiz names peppering the credits include Zevon (exec producer Jordan), Phoenix (actress Rain as Brigette’s roommate) and Arquette (thesp Richmond as Max’s bookie).