There are few things more frustrating than a mystery without a satisfying conclusion, unless it’s a mystery that didn’t need to be a mystery in the first place. “Sidney Hall” strings its audience along on a tedious journey that runs out of steam long before reaching an embarrassingly overwrought finale. A cast of promising young talent, led by Logan Lerman and Elle Fanning, struggle with a messy script co-written by Jason Dolan and director Shawn Christensen (“Before I Disappear”), but this shouldn’t register as more than a blip in long careers.
We’re introduced to precocious protagonist Sidney (Lerman) as he reads aloud his sexually explicit story about a popular cheerleader to his high school English class. The teacher had assigned students to write about the meaning of life, and Sidney’s effort is masturbatory in more ways than one. The lurid introduction is played as a joke, but in retrospect also alerts the audience to the self-satisfied nature of the tale they’re about to see.
For some reason Christensen and Dolan have structured their narrative to crisscross between three stages of Sidney’s life: his teenage years as an aspiring writer, his 20s as a massively successful novelist battling personal demons, and his 30s as an aimless wanderer deliberately removed from society. It’s in those later years that he’s being tracked down by an unnamed detective (Kyle Chandler), who sets out to solve the film’s central mystery — what exactly happened to Sidney Hall?
The puzzle pieces slowly come together as the film follows each timeline chronologically. As Sidney is wooing the pretty girl across the street (Elle Fanning) in his teens, they’re on the brink of divorce in his 20s, and she’s nowhere to be found in his 30s. There’s also the parallel question of what became of the strapping jock (Blake Jenner) who befriends outcast Sidney in high school, and later haunts him like a ghost.
Even with three timelines to track and numerous peripheral characters — including Margaret Qualley as adult Sidney’s mistress, Michelle Monaghan as his chain-smoking mother, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as his sage mentor, and Nathan Lane as his quippy literary agent — “Sidney Hall” remains a slog that seems to lose momentum the more we learn about each stage in the hero’s life. Because everything is unfolding simultaneously, it’s difficult to become fully invested in Sidney’s blossoming first love while we’re also asked to register the impact of his crumbling marriage and understand the full scope of his vagabond’s despair.
When the film finally reveals the grand tragedies that led Sidney to change so dramatically in each stage of his life, the answers don’t click into place as some grand revelation, but play like cheats — both in the decision to withhold crucial information from the audience for so long, and in the cruel tricks the writers play on their characters. If Christensen had had a stronger hold on the material, he may have made a tearjerker, but the pointless nihilism overrides the evident sincerity of feeling.
Still, it’s easy to see why Lerman — a rising star who won plaudits at Sundance last year for “Indignation,” and previously charmed in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” — would’ve jumped at the title role (and signed on as executive producer). The opportunity to play a character at three stages in his life is certainly rare, even if the material rarely justifies the exercise. Oddly, the 25-year-old actor is most convincing when he’s playing both younger and older than his actual age, falling a bit flat when he’s tackling the superstar writer whose narcissism takes a toll on everyone around him.
It’s the exact opposite for 18-year-old Fanning, who is beguiling enough in the high school segments, but feels atypically out of her depth with the heavier developments of the grownup storyline. Among the supporting cast, Chandler is the significant standout in a role that initially feels like a watered-down version of his “Bloodline” character, before emerging as something entirely different. He also brings out the best in Lerman, even though they share some of the film’s most ludicrous scenes together.