The Color Wheel
Directed By: Alex Ross Perry
Written By: Carlen Altman and Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Carlen Altman, Alex Ross Perry, Bob Byington, Ry Russo-Young, Roy Thomas, and C. Mason Wells
Director of Photography: Sean Price Williams, Editor: Alex Ross Perry
If one were to just look at a description of The Color Wheel on paper, one would expect the next film in the often unimaginative mumblecore movement. The writer-director-actor, Alex Ross Perry has been linked before with Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski. C. Mason Wells co-worte and starred in Swanberg’s LOL. Ry Russo-Young is another one of the mumblecore filmmakers and has a small role here. And the film’s plot involves a lot of dialogue about 20-somethings trying to figure out their lives. But it only takes the first image of 16mm black and white grain and the soul songs of the 1970s for The Color Wheel to transport us to a different world. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
It’s not that Perry’s film is completely stripped of any relation to the mumblecore movement, but The Color Wheel has much more on its mind, both visually and thematically, than those of his filmmaking generation’s counterparts. Perry made a small if notable dent in filmmaking with his first film, Impolex (Less of an adaptation of Thomas Pychon’s Gravity’s Rainbow than a parody of its cult status), but he launches himself into a unique stratosphere of filmmakers to watch with this abrasive and uniquely bold comedy about sibiling-hood.
Playing like a cross between Lena Dunham and Howard Hawks, Perry’s film, which stars him and his co-writer Carlen Altman, as Colin and J R, a pair of siblings who haven’t seen each other in quite a few years. Colin has the voice of Taran Killam’s SNL parody of Michael Cera and has been stuck in a post-graduate malaise of sarcastic comments and emasculated banter with his awful girlfriend, who refuses sex with him when he demands it forthright. J R may be classically beautiful, but she often hides it against her abrasive and nasty personality, sucking the life force out of those around her to get what she wants.
Colin and J R at first seem so unlikable, not only in how they treat each other but the world around them, that many may be ready to flee to the exit. But as The Color Wheel develops into its narrative—Colin must drive J R to Boston to pick up her items from her ex-boyfriend, who was also her professor—Perry and Altman make the two seem only as bad as everyone else you come along in the street. Because Perry’s shooting on 16mm, there’s less room for improvisation than a digital film (or at least the sense of improvisation) and Perry and Altman’s dialogue as a rapturously quick repartee that feels if at times overwritten, extremely amusing for the amount of its combativeness (one of their fights actually ends with sparks flying across the room in the form of a birthday hamburger, one of the film’s best visual jokes). And the film has its array of odd and ridiculous characters: an ultra-Christian motel clerk who demands to see couples kiss before lending a room, the infamous ex-boyfriend who refuses to let J R stand while talking to him, and an awful partygoer who seems to torment Colin for simply being himself.
All of this banter, both sexual and non-sexual, leads The Color Wheel to its shocking, if not inevitable climax, which Perry shoots in a single unbroken take that is easily the film’s most audacious and brilliantly constructed moment. And when I realized the shots that open the film are repeated here, I suddenly realize how far Perry’s creativity and imagination go, and how pitch-perfect much of The Color Wheel, even with its own self-suggested amateurism, is really a gem of a film. Sibling rivalry has been explored in countless films going way back to the silent, but few manage to reach the literal conclusion Perry and Altman take it to. The 16mm (expertly captured by Sean Price Williams) and soul songs is not just some call back to 70s filmmaking and Cassevetes; it’s Perry’s sign that his film takes place somewhere removed from reality, where Oedipal becomes literal, bitterness becomes heartfelt, and the person you hate the most is often the one you can’t stand to be without.