Few actors can eat a cupcake with the existential despair of Keanu Reeves in “Generation Um … ,” a slapped-together sub-mumblecore exercise that at times suggests a feature-length expansion of 2010’s “Sad Keanu” meme. Following an overgrown lost boy on his plot-free peregrinations around New York over 24 hours, often in the company of two similarly lost girls, this scrappy, draggy study in soul-crushing failure and disappointment is noteworthy primarily as a showcase for its lead actor’s most quintessentially Keanu performance in years — a master class in brooding, taciturn non-emoting that will account for what little commercial interest the film generates in VOD and limited-theatrical release.
Even by the very loose standards of all the barely scripted, lazily assembled portraits of urban wastrels that have proliferated in recent years, Mark L. Mann’s writing-directing debut feels particularly aimless in the way it serves up improvised blather, meandering observational lensing, direct-to-camera confessionals and certain other conventions of microbudget indie cinema.
After a long night of heavy drinking and partying, sullen escort-service driver John (Reeves) drops off his two young charges — noisy, fiery brunette Violet (Bojana Novakovic) and melancholy blonde Mia (Adelaide Clemens) — at their Lower East Side apartment, then goes on a long jaunt around the city. He hangs out at his own grimy excuse for a bachelor pad, where he’s temporarily hosting his annoyingly upbeat cousin (Jonny Orsini), who proves completely oblivious to John’s inconsolable gloom. John rides the subway, peers in store windows, devours that aforementioned cupcake and, in a rare, inexplicable moment of action, steals a digital videocamera from a gang of hula-hooping cowboys (only in New York).
This theft, not the film’s last, provides an excuse for a round of boozy, wannabe-intimate truth-telling as John finds Violet and Mia again, turns the camera on them and coaxes them to spill the darkest secrets of their battered, sexually ravaged souls. But there’s nothing revelatory in these self-baring dialogues, no new insights in terms of human degradation, psychological depth or movie-within-a-movie deconstruction. The actresses do have their moments, rather impressively in Novakovic’s case, as her shrill histrionics in the early going make her the hardest to take of the film’s central trio.
On the plus side, Reeves’ camera presence is as effortless as ever; his cherished persona as an avatar of shaggy-haired blankness, too absent from the screen of late, finds an ideal fit in this inexpressive, inarticulate drifter. Mauricio Rubinstein lensed the picture primarily on Super 16, and his images have a welcome tactility and graininess, lending a bright-hued vibrancy to this snapshot of one Gotham day. The soundtrack is an atmospheric blur of background noise, a Fall on Your Sword score and, in an ill-advised bid for relevance, overheard radio chatter about our troubled economic times.