Movie Review: CEREMONY (2011)

Starring: Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman, Reece Thompson, Lee Pace

Written and Directed by: Max Winkler

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Ceremony, the first film from writer/director Max Winkler, is a movie that doesn’t give you the chance to breath; moving quickly from scene to scene with its characters speaking what feels like rapid fire dialogue, it initially requires the viewer to adjust to the proceedings. But once you get on board with Winkler’s style and get invested into the story, Ceremony quickly becomes something more than just your run of the mill quirky indie love story; it’s a movie that’s far funnier than anything in recent memory.

Michael Angarano stars as Sam, a wannabe children’s author who ropes the sullen Marshall (Reece Thompson) into spending the weekend with him in upstate New York on the pretense of rekindling their stalled friendship (the two haven’t seen each other in a year). But what was supposed to be two days of bonding becomes something else entirely when Sam decides to crash a nearby wedding party hosted on the estate of Whit Coutell (Lee Pace). It seems innocent enough until it’s revealed that Sam knows Whit’s soon to be bride, Zoe (Uma Thurman) and that they used to be more than “pen pals”. He sets off to win Zoe back and to stop the wedding from happening, and chaos ensues over the next two days.

Ceremony is a character driven comedy, and luckily the characters are worth following. Sam is particularly fun, very energetic and always quick with a response or an idea or even a flat out lie. Angarano is wonderful in the role, and when the third act calls for him to actually throw some serious acting in, it’s completely believable. Thurman, who hasn’t had a great past couple of years, delivers a good performance as Zoe. Initially she seems like she’ll just be an object of affection, but as we get to know her character she’s given some added layers that make her a bit more complicated but in a believable way. The side characters are just as fun, with Pace and Jake M. Johnson (who plays Zoe’s drugged up brother Teddy) stealing their scenes with relative ease. Johnson in particular gets the majority of the movie’s biggest laughs.

The central relationships between Sam and Zoe, and Sam and Marshall, are also handled well and are believable. Given what we’re shown about the personalities of him and Zoe, it makes perfect sense why the two would have a romantic past (although to be fair, we’re more told Zoe’s personality than really shown). Sam and Marshall  also make believable best friends and have some great moments together (particularly after they’re given some pills by Teddy and try to hook up with girls at the after party). But when it comes to Ceremony, Thompson gets the short end of the stick. His character arc, being afraid of moving out after being assaulted, isn’t that strong and his “romance” with a maid (they keep making eye contact with each other) never goes anywhere and is quickly forgotten.

The movie moves at a quick pace, and at barely 90 minutes never has a dull moment. This keeps Ceremony from wearing out its welcome; it starts, tells the story competently and in an entertaining way, and then gets out of there. Winkler’s script is filled with memorable lines and interesting turns in the story, and with the way the movie looks I’m surprised that this is his directorial debut. It’s beautifully shot and has the aura of being directed by someone who has been in the game for longer than he has. That confidence should bode well as he continues in his career, and you should keep an eye out for his next movie.

Being a man who loves a good comedy, I have sat through a lot of so-so efforts this year so Ceremony feels like a godsend. It’s laugh out loud funny more often than not, with characters that are all inherently likable even when they end up doing some pretty bad things. Angarano, Thurman, Johnson, and Pace all deliver funny, and surprisingly complex, performances. There are some spots where Ceremony does lose its footing, some moments are quirky for quirky sake and Marshall’s story is very flat, but overall it was a pleasant surprise. Check this out if you get the chance.

Grade: B+


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