In a recent New York Times interview, filmmaker Alex Ross Perry mentioned his enjoyment of “abusing the expectations” of audiences. In his second feature, the strangely amusing and oddly titled The Color Wheel, Perry does just that for the movie’s roughly 85 minutes, acting as director, co-writer and co-star. (Click the movie poster for a large version.)
Recalling the work of famed no-budget director Rick Schmidt, Perry takes two characters, a road trip plot, and grainy 16-millimeter Kodak film (yes, film) and smugly rips up a generation of indie film trends.
Most of the unique skewering comes in the form of language, both verbal and visual. Perry and co-writer/co-star Carlen Altman spend much of the film exchanging jabs at top speed, playing a brother and sister on a bizarre, miserable travel weekend. Altman is J.R., a snarky do-nothing who asks scruffy, pouty brother Colin (Perry) to help her retrieve stuff from her ex’s apartment. The siblings are in full battle mode from their their first walk to the car, but the dialogue feels wholly original as both actors translate their characters’ pent-up disdain for one another into fits of spontaneous spewing–and hilarity.
The energy is similar to that of a Cassevettes drama (think A Woman Under the Influence), where a word or action didn’t require real-life logic, just real-life emotional freedom. It’s a liberating environment — for both the creative artists and the audience — in which a diner’s waitstaff delivers Colin a hamburger topped with lit candles and sings “Happy birthday dear patron”, while J.R. mimes “fu*k you” under her breath.
It’s tough to know what to expect, and that’s the thrill that carries from scene to scene. Colin tends to puke practically unprovoked and display his collection of gargoyles. J.R. takes to carelessly saying “ooh la la” before many sentences, a modern version of Diane Keaton’s silly “la dee dah”. Perry and Altman have chosen their words carefully in creating The Color Wheel, so the occasional injection of surrealism is just enough to feel kooky without building a wall of inaccessibility between the film and its viewers. And both performers are well aware that conflict can carry the dramatic arc of any narrative, so the main characters manage plenty of that.
Perry edits within conventional boundaries, but with unexpected execution. That typical film joke in which a character makes a proclamation in one scene, only to do exactly the opposite in the very next shot, is here — but the timing is jarringly off-kilter, making the idea either funnier or more awkward than usual. Or both.
There’s a risk in such creative conceit, of being overly quirky, but Perry keeps human emotion at the core so the strange stuff seems to flow naturally. The director was reading Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” while writing The Color Wheel (as evidenced by the film’s teaser poster, mimicking the cover of Roth’s classic) and the characters’ weaknesses keep the action anchored.
For all their animosity, Colin and J.R. share an inability to assimilate with the rest of the world — Colin clearly shows he can instantly offend, telling a stranger that eating pineapple makes ejaculate taste “delicious”. It’s obvious that brother and sister really only have each other, and their realization is the topper of a remarkably well-acted scene by Altman, who closes her eyes and launches into a monologue that shows J.R.’s potential for dreamy happiness. Savvy moviegoers will guess where it’s all going. The rest will have their expectations properly abused.