It's a sure bet that nearly every review of Ceremony includes mentions of Wes Anderson and Henry Winkler, so I won't make you wait for mine: with his debut feature, writer-director Max Winkler (yes, son of Henry) goes after a Wes Anderson vibe. But Winkler shows a twinkle of promise, enough to suggest he could grow into his own style. Winkler's sincerity is more palpable than that of Anderson, whose style competes with substance. Winkler apes that style, but he puts it in service of a heartfelt character dramedy, showing a preference for quirk over snark that some will find endearing.
Still, this shaggy-dog comedy-drama unmistakably derives from Anderson, beginning with the Max Fischer-esque pretense of the central character, twenty-three-year-old Sam R. Davis (Michael Angarano, confidently playing unconfidence). Sam has written and illustrated an unwanted children's book, called “Chloe the Mermaid," a fishy reworking of his own love story with Zoe (Uma Thurman), an older woman about to marry egomaniacal, smugly suave nature documentarian Whit Coutell (Lee Pace). Just as his storybook surrogate "would not take no for an answer,” the lovelorn Sam remains determined to win Zoe back. That'll be a tall order, since Sam is a man-child loser (if frustratingly charming) and Whit (though frustratingly pompous), in Zoe's eyes, offers conventional stability. But one can't count Sam out, as it's immediately apparent that he is something of an emotional con man. Needing a wingman for his wedding-crash excursion, Sam exploits Marshall (Reece Thompson), a friend he has criminally neglected, whisking him off to the beachside Long Island estate where Zoe will wed Whit.
Winkler proves more interested in melancholy wryness than belly laughs, and the low-key results have a pleasant fizz. Ultimately, it's all rather thin, not making efficient enough use of its hour-and-a-half running time fully to flesh out the characters and their relationships. In particular, one might wonder how the seemingly level-headed Zoe would submit to the caricature that is Whit (who echoes Jean-Pierre Léaud's character in Last Tango in Paris), or long for more details about Sam and Whit's romantic past. There's a subplot of sorts involving Zoe's self-destructive, drunken brother Teddy (nicely played by Jake M. Johnson) and another of Marshall having eyes for the household maid (Nathalie Love), but the raw meat is in the uneasy negotiations between Zoe and Sam, and Sam and Marshall.
Winkler wins some points by not shying away from Sam's shortcomings. When Teddy tries to cheer him up by saying, “C’mon, man. The good guys sometimes win,” Sam replies, “I don’t know how good I am.” As such, Ceremony at least earns its indie cred—and rejects rom-com sterility—by acknowledging the messiness and ambiguity of these relationships come to a head. Throw in some literary allusions (This Side of Paradise, The Catcher in the Rye, Les Misérables) and some vintage pop rock (Eric Burdon & The Animals, Ringo Starr, Pete Townsend), and watch the Wes Anderson comparisons roll in.
Ceremony comes to Blu-ray in a solid hi-def special edition from Magnolia. A/V specs are good, with an unmblemished video transfer that excels in color representation. Though black level is a bit wobbly, detail is good (occasional softness appears to be endemic to the source), and the only sign of the transfer's digital nature is a bit of banding. The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix ably recreates the theatrical effect, with a bit of ambient detail perking up the rear channels for what is understandably a front-heavy, dialogue-driven presentation (music, also a prominent feature, sounds nicely full).
Magnolia sees fit to include a healthy group of bonus features, beginning with a short but sweet roundup of "Deleted Scenes" (2:11, SD), "Outtakes" (2:40, SD), and an "Extended Scene" (2:37, SD), the excruciating toast by Zoe's brother.
"Making Of" (21:47, SD) is a standard behind-the-scenes featurette with set footage and cast and crew interview snippets.
"Max Winkler Makes Ceremony" (8:18, SD) provides considerably less in the way of talking heads and more B-roll of the director at work: as such, it's more interesting than the making-of featurette. "Behind the Scenes Footage" (7:17, SD) eliminates talking heads entirely, so if this is what you're after, come straight here.
"HDNet Looks at Ceremony" (4:36, SD) is a promo for the film's cable/VOD outlet.
"A Year in the Tent" (3:58, SD) is a mock-doc about Whit's travels in Africa.
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