Alex Ross Perry’s black-and-white “Color Wheel” takes the downside of mumblecore — its tendency to force auds to spend less-than-quality time with people they would otherwise take pains to avoid — and deliberately thrusts it centerstage. Perry’s antiheroine, JR (Carlen Altman), a shallow, self-centered, mean-spirited, none-too-bright aspiring newscaster, has consistently alienated everyone around her, especially her immediate family. Nevertheless, she manages to browbeat sad-sack brother Colin (Perry) into accompanying her on a road trip through a negatively charged Americana. Hard to swallow but impossible to ignore, this nihilistic comedy may emerge as a cult touchstone.
JR and Colin bicker during their drive to pick up JR’s things from the journalism prof (Bob Byington) whom she had briefly shacked up with. The siblings’ barbed insults take on the rhythm of a familiar refrain (Perry and Altman co-scripted), their long association having taught them the most hurtful buttons to push. If their shared disaffection sometimes bonds them against others (like the Christian fundamentalist motel owner who doubts they’re brother and sister), they are just as liable to throw each other to the dogs. In either case, their caustic byplay is the closest either ever comes to a balanced exchange.
In every other interpersonal interaction, they come off as completely out of synch, unable (in the case of JR) or unwilling (in the case of Colin) to assume the expected social certitudes and platitudes that would gain them acceptance. At a party in their old hometown, JR’s pathetic, self-deluded stabs at sophistication and Colin’s self-fulfilling prophecies of failure practically invite humiliation, begging the question of which is worse, ignorance or cowardice.
Neither JR nor Colin undergoes any pat learning experience during their uncomfortably absurd travels. Salvation, or at least a modicum of authenticity, is achieved not through personal growth or change, but through mental disintegration. In an astonishing, rambling nine-minute monologue delivered in closeup (a more profound version of a similar scene in Perry’s debut, “Impolex”), JR’s ludicrous self-image slowly crumbles bit by bit, briefly revealing a vulnerability as touching as it is probably temporary. But this comes at a price, as family unity takes the form of a shocking transgression.
Sean Price Williams’ grainy, monochrome 16mm camerawork imparts a bleak beauty to the unrelieved sameness of the siblings’ odyssey and lends particular potency to the rug-pulling finale. Consistent with the mumblecore tradition of directors casting themselves and each other as actors in their movies, “Wheel” boasts helmers Byington (“Harmony and Me”) and Ry Russo-Young (“You Won’t Miss Me”) in supporting roles, adding their particular brands of nastiness to the background characters’ spiritual vapidity.