John Cameron Mitchell brings out the worst in Neil Gaiman (or is it the other way around?) in a lifeless punk-meets-alien romance.
There are a few crucial things to know about “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” It’s the first feature John Cameron Mitchell has directed in seven years, as well as his fourth overall — after “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001), “Shortbus” (2006), and the uncharacteristically gloomy “Rabbit Hole” (2010). It’s based on a 2006 short story by the author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman. It’s a punked-out sci-fi period-piece romance set in the London suburb of Croydon during the run-up to Queen Elizabeth II’s 1977 Silver Jubilee celebration (the one the Sex Pistols crashed by sailing up the Thames playing “God Save the Queen”). It tells the story of Enn (Alex Sharp), a pogo-ing punk who’s really a sweet kid next door, and how he falls for Zan (Elle Fanning), who belongs to a mysterious alien cult. The other thing to say about “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is that it’s the biggest dud I’ve seen at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
How did that happen? John Cameron Mitchell is a gifted artist — I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw the original West Village production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and he has proved to be a vibrant and daring filmmaker. (“Shortbus” was the rare drama with hardcore sex in it that made the explicit bits count for something.) In the opening scenes of “How to Talk to Girls,” it’s fun to go back in time with him to the birth of spiked-mohawk-and-mosh-pit punk, a movement Mitchell clearly feels in his bones. (As a rock star, Hedwig was punk, glam, and Freddie Mercury all rolled into one.) But then, after an explosive dive-bar gig featuring the Dyschords, a local band managed by Boadicea (Nicole Kidman, looking too refined for her surroundings), Alex and his mate, the peroxide-blond “Eh, wot?” rotter Vic (A.J Lewis), stumble into a mansion with some very odd people inside. The most confounding thing about them — and the movie — is how utterly inexpressive they are.
Their costumes, however, speak loudly. When Enn and Vic enter the house, they see a bunch of people (who turn out to be humanoids) dressed in different shades of skin-tight latex, and in the living room they’re engaged in some sort of flamboyant gymnastic dance ritual that makes them look like Blue Man Group crossed with a tai chi competition. There’s nothing especially supernatural about what’s going on, and for a while we assume that they must be a particularly out-there ’70s cult, one that emphasizes passivity, uniformity, and staring like blank-eyed mannequins.
But no, they’re from someplace else. It’s hard to say where, since almost nothing about the way the aliens operate, or the rules they live by, is presented in a clear or even coherent fashion. But Enn, after talking to Zan, knows that he likes her, and she’s able to win herself a two-day recess from the group to go wandering around with him.
At this point the movie seems like it should turn into some scrappy ripped-T-shirt version of “Splash,” but the dialogue in “How to Talk to Girls” is a stray series of limp noodles. Scenes meander, sit there, fizzle out. The first sign that something out of this world is happening comes when Zan communicates with her “colony” leader, who is suddenly speaking through the character of Enn’s blowzy mother. But that’s about it. I’m not suggesting that “How to Talk to Girls” needed to look like a volume of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but the movie’s alien logistics are so low-rent-verging-on-kitsch that it’s if the John Waters of the early ’70s had made a no-budget sci-fi movie (and left out the jokes). The film enunciates its raw themes — punk means individuality! the aliens are all about conformity! — but never begins to figure out how to embody those themes in a narrative that could lure in the audience.
Elle Fanning is a promising actress, but she should start growing wary of being typecast as a space cadet with royal cheekbones. Alex Sharp is a friendly, engaging young actor, but Enn, as written, is a one-note character. Hardly anyone else in the movie even rises to one note. It’s possible that Mitchell was drawn to adapting Gaiman’s short story because the fussy, befuddling cosmology of the film’s color-coordinated alien colonies echoed, for him, the elaborately absurd backstory of “Hedwig.” Sorry, but cosmology — plus eye-catching designer S&M latex — does not add up to a movie. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” should have been called “How to Talk to an Alien Girl Who Just Sits There.”