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Review: `Color Wheel' full of daring, dark humor

By Christy Lemire
AP Movie Critic / June 6, 2012
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What's intriguing in "The Color Wheel" are the contradictions.

Director, co-writer and co-star Alex Ross Perry's film is shot in grainy, 16mm black and white, which results in images that are at once harsh and dreamlike. His characters, an obnoxious brother and sister (Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman), make no apologies for their behavior and almost seem to thrive on offending everyone they meet, yet they're oddly intriguing. Their banter, a rapid-fire, brutally honest brand of sniping and mutual humiliation, has the free flow of improvisation but actually was tightly scripted. And just when it seems that these characters have finally let their guards down and allowed their truest selves to shine through, they do something that most people in the audience will find deplorable and even sickening.

"The Color Wheel" won't be for everyone, that's for sure, but its daring is undeniable.

Altman's character, the sexy, flaky JR, is an aspiring newscaster with seemingly no talent. One day, she shows up and enlists her brother, Perry's plain, nerdy Colin, to help her move her stuff out of the apartment of her former boyfriend, who also happens to be her former professor. Colin thinks JR is miserable and unpleasant but fails to recognize that he's just as bad; he's stuck in a three-year relationship with a woman who clearly detests him and won't sleep with him.

Grudgingly, Colin climbs into JR's beat-up Honda Accord and the two embark on a road trip from suburban Pennsylvania to Boston. But as in most movies with this kind of structure, the destination isn't as important as the discussions and encounters that take place during the journey itself. That's about the only conventional element here.

They have run-ins with a fundamentalist motel clerk, some unsuspecting diner waitresses and a disapproving antiques store owner, among others, before winding up at a party with some old high school classmates. The crowd is so condescending that Colin and JR almost end up playing the victims -- you almost end up feeling sorry for them. Then again, the combination of the intimate way the film is shot and the nearly incessant, deadpan rat-a-tat of the dialogue provides a feeling of edginess even in the most mundane situations.

As in so many indie comedies, these 20-somethings are stuck in a deluded state of arrested development, but while such films ordinarily are eager to please and charm you with their quirkiness, "The Color Wheel" simply does not give a damn. You may find that attitude off-putting; I found it thrilling. Similarly, the tone of the dialogue may at times seem stiff and stilted -- the entire aesthetic may seem crudely low-budget -- but there's too much artfulness in cinematographer Sean Price Williams' camerawork to dismiss the film as choppy and thrown-together.

"The Color Wheel" culminates with one long, mesmerizing take that runs about 10 minutes, in which Colin and JR sit on a couch and seemingly talk about nothing. But as you're watching it, and as the camera steadily inches in, you realize they're having the first pure conversation we've seen in the entire movie, and perhaps the first in their lives.

They've pushed the world away and the world pushed back. It's a defiant, uncompromising statement in every way.

"The Color Wheel," a Cinema Conservancy release, is unrated but contains language and adult situations. Running time: 83 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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