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Sundance Film Review: ‘Newness’

Variety logo Variety 1/23/2017 Owen Gleiberman
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Newness,” Drake Doremus’ drama about love in the age of the endless sex-shopping-mall hookup app, is a movie that wants to look and feel like “life.” It’s shot with a handheld camera, and with a lot of quick cuts and natural light — though this translates into every room being cast in slate-gray shadow, as if life were the ultimate designer beer commercial. (One of the film’s producers is Ridley Scott, who along with his brother Tony pioneered this sort of thing making British TV commercials in the 1980s; it’s nice to know that some traditions live on.) Gliding through the murk of existential images are a lot of very pretty millennials, notably the two leads: Nicholas Hoult as the world’s sexiest pharmacist, and Laia Costa as an expatriate from Barcelona who’s working as a physical therapist. Tale, pale, and lightly bearded, Hoult looks like Ethan Hawke 2.0, and the dark petite Costa resembles the art-house version of an erotic dynamo.

These two meet on Winx, a hookup app that each one uses on a daily basis, connecting with — and plowing through — an array of gorgeous partners as if they were fast-food meals. The way the movie presents it, it’s an always-looming orgy that beats Studio 54 on the wildest night of the year. But when Hoult and Costa get together for drinks, they discover that they actually like talking, and then they hang out and do some stuff. They delay falling into bed for what must be an entire four hours. (How romantic is that? It’s so romantic it turns the evening into what used to be called a “date.”) As for the sex…well, it’s even better than usual. This looks like a hookup that could last, so both of them delete their Winx accounts, a situation destined not to last.

Do open relationships work? In rare cases, yes, but for the vast majority of us, open relationships are doomed to crash and burn, and regardless of how much we’ve actually tried the experiment ourselves we’ve all seen movies about it. At first, it looks like freedom, but then (of course!) it breeds jealousy, possessiveness, mistrust. “Newness” explores the lures — and pitfalls — of an open relationship in the new culture of the digital meat market, but really, it’s bringing some very old news. The movie may have a moment at Sundance, but with its vague title and arty packaged angst, it will struggle to find a niche in the indie demimonde.

I’m not saying that it’s invalid to make a drama about how millennials are now having a go at their own sexual revolution. The trouble with “Newness” — and the reason it’s shot in such a clinical vérité fashion — is that it’s a thesis movie, heady and ambitious yet overly thought out. Each scene is designed to make a point: They’re really in love! He’s hiding something, and she can tell! Look, erotic boredom is kicking in! The movie is a love story, but it’s more like the study of a love story. Doremus, who made “Like Crazy,” “Breathe In,” and the early, no-budget, amusingly incorrect “Douchebag” (which in some ways remains his best film), has talent, but he needs to lighten up. He has made a romantic drama that’s seriously sociological yet cold to the touch.

For a while, the erotic experimentation is fun in a voyeuristic “91/2 Weeks” way. She wants to watch him get a lap dance; he wants to spy on her when she goes on a date. They have a threesome, which actually results in no follow-up drama (which would be the standard cliché). The real problems set in when attachments form. Hoult’s character was married before, but their relationship was capsized by a miscarriage; when he learns that his ex- has had a baby, it sets off peals of melancholy regret. As for Costa, she becomes the pampered bauble of a wealthy swell (nicely played by Danny Huston) who treats her like royalty, until he doesn’t. The trouble is, none of this stuff seems particularly tied to the new erotic dynamics of digital culture. It’s basically a soap opera given a fresh coat of hookup-era paint.

Hoult and Costa are good actors who make the most of their improvised space. They convinced me that they belong together. Yet the title suggests this is going to be a movie about addiction — the compulsive need for a new sexual high — and the characters in “Newness” are too controlled in their passion to seem driven. The coolness of their desire links back to the swank underpinnings of the movie’s visual style: It’s selling beauty, telling us that the characters are so alluring that they don’t need to be driven. The world will come to them, and they know it. Watching “Newness,” you feel like you’re staring at an aquarium, looking at a mating dance of sexy self-importance.

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