A Woody Allen for the no-visible-means-of-support generation, Adam Bowers doesn’t exactly burst onto the scene with “New Low” — he sidles in, wearing a wrinkled T-shirt and jeans hanging off his knife-ish hips. But he also displays a well-defined comedic style in this punkish comedy about romantic indecision and a self-waged war for its hero’s soul. Theatrical sale out of Sundance would seem a real possibility in cash-strapped times, given that two admissions would probably cover the entire production budget. Whatever happens, the movie smells like a cult hit.
An appropriate entry in Sundance’s new Next section dedicated to low-/no-budget films and breakout talent, “New Low” is, in its way, an homage to Allen’s “Manhattan.” Wendell (Bowers) is neurotic, self-absorbed and torn between two women, one dark, one light; one good, one kinda bad (and bad for him). The question for Wendell is whether he should be with the woman who makes him a better person, or the one who allows him to be the neurotic, messy, socially inappropriate nebbish he really is. Depending on one’s perspective on happy endings, “New Low” is a tragedy. Or a triumph.
Shot raggedly, and on borrowed equipment, the pic has something most contemporary comedies don’t — which is a core idea that isn’t funny at all. Amid the jokes (which have a pretty high hit-miss ratio), Wendell is really a self-defeating, aimless slacker whose concern for his fellow man is rather, shall we say, limited. Which naturally attracts him to Vicki (Jayme Ratzer), a bartender whose idea of dining out is dumpster diving, who attends gallery openings to scarf down the free food, and whose apartment is such squalid mess “the cockroaches want her to vacuum,” as Wendell puts it. She belittles Wendell, which feeds into his sense of non-self-worth. They call each other names. In other words, it’s bliss.
Then there’s Joanna (Valerie Jones), a regular at Wendell’s videostore who rents docs about deforestation, volunteers at every Green/lefty group in Gainesville, Fla. (where the movie apparently just finishing shooting ahead of Hurricane Fay in 2008) and radiates goodness and light. For some reason, she thinks Wendell is a good person and invites him to an activist meeting, where Wendell’s lack of native empathy reveals itself to everyone but Joanna. He knows he should prefer Joanna; he even wants to prefer Joanna. But the filthy, unhygienic, alcoholic and strangely alluring Vicky keeps calling him back.
Some will want to lump “New Low” with the so-called mumblecore movement because it occupies filmmaking’s lower-economic stratum. But Wendell’s existential crisis is all about him; he’s no navel-gazer. His own navel would gross him out. His similarities to Allen are pronounced — when Vicky says, “I wish life could be a movie,” Wendell says “Yeah, it would be over in two hours.” Bowers is also far less conspiratorial with his audience, and decidedly embedded in his own generation’s battle with itself. The more delicate among us will find him off-putting. The rest will find him hilarious.
Production values are virtually nonexistent.