Some pics never recover from off-putting opening scenes in which an aggressively manic lead character comes across as more irksome than engaging. A prime example is “Ceremony,” writer-director Max Winkler’s curiously unpleasant romantic-comedy about an immature twentysomething writer (Michael Angarano) who doggedly pursues his thirtysomething ex-lover (Uma Thurman) during the weekend she plans to wed a more age-appropriate suitor. Despite a few grace notes and mildly clever twists, this handsomely produced indie is such a grating turnoff throughout its first third that its minor virtues may be discovered only by insomniac latenight cable viewers.
Sam (Angarano), a manipulative motormouth, tricks his friend Marshall (Reece Thompson), a fidgety neurotic, into driving him to a Long Island beach community where they can enjoy some quality buddy time together. But Sam really wants to gate-crash the festivities at a palatial estate where Zoe (Thurman), the object of his obsessive affection, is about to marry Whit (Lee Pace), an egocentric director of anthropological documentaries.
Being a hopeless romantic, Sam cannot imagine that his short-lived, recently ended relationship with Zoe was nothing more than an impulsive fling on her part. Zoe certainly sends mixed signals — mostly horrified, but occasionally affectionate — after Sam manages to finagle an invitation for himself and Marshall to remain at the estate as wedding guests. As time drags on, however, Sam looks increasingly foolish as he frantically tries to reignite the romantic spark that initially brought them together. He assumes, of course, there actually was a spark there.
To his credit, writer-director Winkler attempts some variations on the standard romantic-comedy blueprint, such as his decision to begin “Ceremony” at a point where most similar pics would be kicking off the second act. Trouble is, since it’s unclear how Sam and Zoe got together in the first place, there’s no way for a viewer to make an emotional investment in the couple. Indeed, Sam seems so much like a delusional stalker in the opening scenes that it’s difficult to feel entirely comfortable whenever he’s in the same room, or even on the same beach, with Zoe.
It doesn’t help much that Angarano is unable to make Sam at all appealing, and that Thurman never gets a firm grip on the apparent contradictions of her character. It helps even less that too much of the film sounds like a tin-eared imitation of Wes Anderson.
Here and there, “Ceremony” broadly hints that Zoe has a history of short-lived hook-ups with inappropriate partners, and that Whit may be a much nicer guy than he seems, simply because he’s so much in love that he puts up with her shortcomings. Winkler would have done well to further explore these angles, and perhaps spend more time with Whit, who’s played with surprising complexity and fearless self-mockery by Pace.
Pic also could have used a few more minutes with Jake Johnson as Teddy, Zoe’s affable loser of a brother, a shambling substance-abuser who always appears to be laughing at some private joke.