Rhys Ifans and Juno Temple are the best reasons to watch this diverting but unconvincing tale of music-industry ennui.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are kept mostly offscreen in “Len and Company,” a semi-comic portrait of a music-biz burnout that concerns itself less with glittery debauchery than with its mopey aftermath. In the prickly, unlovable role of a hermetic super-producer unnerved by a surprise visit from his college-age son, Rhys Ifans finds an unusually demanding showcase for his frayed, feckless screen persona. As a dysfunctional family drama, however, commercials director Tim Godsall’s debut feature takes far fewer risks, while offering a less-than-convincing glimpse into the modern-day pop factory. Unspooling at Edinburgh — though seemingly made with a view to Sundance — this modest diversion shares its cranky protagonist’s hostility to commercial appeal, despite a baffling third-act lunge into thriller territory.
“Just a rich old bastard with loads of f—ing T-shirts,” is how the eponymous Len (Ifans) describes himself to a classroom of bewildered schoolchildren at a disastrously ill-advised careers presentation — and to all visible intents and purposes in Godsall’s film, he’s right. As he whiles away his days watching vintage British television in a taupe-coated Upstate chalet, avoiding contact with everyone but puppyishly awed teenage odd-job worker William (Keir Gilchrist), you wouldn’t know that he’s a self-made punk frontman turned Grammy-guzzling producer of hypersexual dance pop that he doesn’t much believe in.
That’s at least partly the film’s fault. Adapted from a stage play — Carly Mensch’s Off Broadway item “Len, Asleep in Vinyl” — that could likely have gotten away with a more confined story world, “Len and Company” offers a surprisingly safe, sterile view of contemporary celebrity culture. TMZ flashes briefly by on a laptop screen, but the growingly invasive level of media curiosity it represents is barely felt: It’s hard to believe that Len, mere weeks after committing a headline-making PR gaffe on live television, would be permitted to rest at his unwalled country retreat without a single paparazzo in view.
So easy does the dissolute rocker have it, in fact, that the only disturbance to arouse his ire is the unannounced arrival of his sensitive, mild-mannered son Max (Jack Kilmer, son of Val), who’s at something of a loose end himself. Having dropped out of NYU to concentrate on his own folk-rock band, Max nervously seeks his father’s creative guidance — a tall order, given Len’s abject deficiency in even the most fundamental parenting departments. (“You’re like a diet drink … the danger’s been taken out of your formula,” he snaps at Max, in what passes for a pep talk.)
He’s no more supportive a father figure to Zoey (a fizzy, vivid Juno Temple), the Katy Perry-esque chart-topper whose career he has shepherded from girlhood. Having been publicly humiliated by Len at a recent award ceremony, she, too, shows up at his retreat in search of an explanation. Her presence — like Len’s, though even less plausibly — attracts not a whisper of media attention; relative to the specific scene-setting in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s recent “Beyond the Lights,” Zoey’s pop career seems an entirely abstract construction. Her inevitable personal meltdown fuels the pic’s latter half, though it occupies a very different fictional space from Len’s lower-key crisis. Given little assistance by the script, editor Geoff Hounsell struggles to integrate these dissonant dramatic arcs in a mutually informative fashion, while a particularly overheated climax sees a long-simmering subplot involving one of Zoey’s admiring crew members (Elias Toufexis) swerve crudely into the central narrative.
Amid the film’s narrative lulls and lapses, it’s the actors who hold our attention. Effectively sketching an alternative incarnation of his stonewashed slacker character from Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” — one who has chosen status over personal fulfilment — Ifans plays Len with a soured, self-weary streak of anger directed both at everyone and at no one in particular. It’s a spiny, sometimes edgily funny turn, making few concessions to sentimentality even as the role inches toward paternal redemption. Ifans may not succeed in making auds entirely care for Len, but he’s never dull to watch. The ever-compelling Temple, meanwhile, imbues the potentially synthetic Zoey with considerable intuition and wit, playing the character’s robo-Lolita star facade alternately as a shield and a stumbling block. The affable Kilmer has the less enviable task of playing straight man to these two more extravagant screw-ups; a flintier-than-usual Kathryn Hahn appears all too briefly as Max’s reformed-bohemian mother.
Tech credits are generally smooth, though a few ill-disciplined digressions into needless handheld technique mar the otherwise brisk widescreen serenity of Andre Pienaar’s lensing. The manicured, magazine-ready rustic finish of Paul D. Austerberry’s production design works effectively against Len’s own delusions of rebellion, also symbolized by the time-softened punk staples (from the likes of the Clash and Ian Dury) that pepper the soundtrack. We hear barely any of Len’s own music (or Zoey’s, for that matter), though perhaps that’s appropriate in a story that details just how far the industry can pull artists from their own art.