‘Punk’s not dead, it just smells that way!” So goes the old joke at the expense of that short-lived but impactful cultural movement that captured the imaginations of teenagers in the New York and London of 1977. Fifteen minutes into John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story we begin to get a whiff as pungent as the rotting corpse of Sid Vicious. This, folks, is a stinker!
Mitchell takes us back to the British capital in the summer of ‘77, one of those culturally pivotal years, much like 1963, when change is in the air and rubbish lies in the streets. Enn (Alex Sharp) is a snotty-nosed punk who hangs out with his obnoxious mates, penning a punk fanzine, attending sweaty gigs in basements, and of course, attempting and failing to get laid.
Enn’s luck changes when he finds himself at a party in a large squat that houses a mysterious tribe of latex garbed aliens, whom the lads dismiss as being from California due to their propensity for yoga and strange mantra warbling. One of the aliens, Zan, takes the form of a teenage girl (Elle Fanning), and wouldn’t you know, grubby little Enn is immediately smitten. Zan runs away from her fellow aliens and begins to explore Earth, or at least the town of Croydon, with the obliging Enn.
Mitchell came to prominence in the ‘90s with his stage musical and subsequent film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and HTTTGAP plays largely like a musical that someone has edited out all the song and dance numbers. Characters often line up as though they’re about to break into a choreographed routine, and an embracing of the inherent campness of the musical genre would have made the cloying tweeness of Mitchell’s film somewhat more bearable.
Like a Monty Python skit that’s far too worried about ensuring the audience gets the joke, Mitchell’s take on Gaiman’s story goes out of its way to be odd, but in the most cynical and manufactured of fashion. “Isn’t this all just absolutely crazy?” the film practically screams in our ears at intervals. Err, no actually - it’s rather dull. Despite its barrage of color and microwavable weirdness, it’s a boil-in-the-bag cult movie with a cardboard aftertaste.
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Mitchell’s cult clout has enabled him to rope in Hollywood stars of the magnitude of Fanning and Nicole Kidman, who delivers arguably the most embarrassing performance of her career as an aging punk queen - I’m not sure how you can be an aging punk in 1977, when the movement is barely a year old, but let’s not quibble. Elsewhere Ruth Wilson plays a rubberclad alien with an expression on her face that suggests she wants to bludgeon her agent.
Period recreation isn’t exactly HTTTGAP’s saving grace either, with very middle class actors unconvincing as working class oiks and the film taking place in an urban London so underpopulated it resembles the set of The Omega Man (in reality, the streets of 1977 London probably had more in common with Soylent Green).
What’s most irritating about Mitchell’s film is how it arrogantly expects us to embrace and root for its teenage male protagonist, simply because he’s a bit misunderstood and dopey eyed. Fanning’s innocent extra terrestrial is another example of the tired ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope, an Encino Man who’s willing to indulge in snogging and hand jobs. Were the teenage girls of ‘70s London so off-putting that an alien is the better option for a young man looking for love and a fumble?
How To Talk To Girls At Parties - 1 star out of 5
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell; Starring: Alex Sharp, Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, Ruth Wilson
originally published: 2018-05-26 18:04:21
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