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Tue April 22, 2014
In Whedon's Intriguing Experiment, A Good Idea Falls Flat
When In Your Eyes, at essentially the same time it was premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, became available as a five-dollar digital download, it could have seemed like a sign of no confidence in its ability to succeed with a conventional theatrical model. But because the script came from Joss Whedon and his teeny studio Bellwether Pictures — which previously made Whedon's lovely adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing — it felt more like an experiment.
And in a way, the story does, too. There's such a reliable undercurrent of science fiction in Whedon's writing that it's no surprise that this romance, unlike Shakespeare, involves a bit of the unexplained. Specifically, Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) and Dylan (Michael Stahl-David), who live across the country from each other and don't know each other, discover that they're psychically connected and have been since childhood. They've always felt each other's presence, but a moment arrives when they're jolted into the realization that they can speak to each other, see through each other's eyes, taste what each other is eating, and so forth.
Rebecca lives in Blue World and Dylan lives in Gold World, quite literally: director Brin Hill bathes Rebecca's New Hampshire environment in chilly blue and Dylan's New Mexico locale in so much warm gold and bright sunlight that it's juuuust this side of caricature — it looks almost as much like heaven as Heaven Is For Real's heaven does at times, and has considerably more lens flare than Star Trek.
Dylan is the nice kind of ex-con, the sort of guy who only went to prison because he had low self-esteem and had the wrong friends. Rebecca is married to a mean doctor (Mark Feuerstein) who only wants to let her hang around with other rich wives and talk about nothing. When they discover that they are in each other's minds, they become friends (as you ... would, I suppose?), and there are some terrific little scenes where they experiment with the power of two heads being better than one, as when he helps her avoid being conned by an auto mechanic.
Naturally, as they realize they're pretty much stuck with each other, their bond eventually turns romantic. Again, there are interesting little pieces of ideas about what's sexy and what's sensual and what's physical and what's emotional; if you've watched anything Joss Whedon has ever done, you know he loves this stuff, and he's good at it.
The film is also refreshingly uninterested in wondering why this bizarre connection exists; the characters simply learn it's there and accept it as a fact of their lives. Any effort to explain it or tether it to scientific reality would break the spell; they're very smart to simply posit that it is, and then see what happens.
Unfortunately, the execution of these ideas gets really, really thick with overly romantic style choices. Very often, the more romantic (not in the boy-girl romantic sense but in the "romanticism" sense) your script is, the less romantic your direction can be before you start to drown your story. This particular story has such a swooningly magical, emotionally expressive quality that, for instance, a gauzy, Santigold-backed montage makes it seem kind of vulgar. The production values are a little "Folgers Christmas commercial," and it makes it hard to stay in the story.
Part of this comes from the score, which is too ... well, it's too tootle-y for my tastes, to use a non-word, and from the use of songs recorded by squishy, soft-focus indie bands like Iron & Wine and The Lumineers. It's nothing against either of those artists, but when they play almost back to back and there's this much sun-kissed backlighting, it's just overkill.
Some of the problems do come from the script, and especially from a disappointingly silly finale that insists that only a very terrible husband would assume his wife might be having psychiatric problems simply because she is talking to invisible people, reacting to things that aren't happening to her, and saying nothing about why. But it's hard not to wonder whether the stripped-down, black-and-white style in which Whedon shot Much Ado would have grounded these ideas a little. The movie isn't really about magic; it's about baffling feelings of abrupt intimacy that you don't really understand, and it doesn't really need the montages and the extreme color coding.
In Your Eyes has some nice moments, but it's in its own way a little. Still, experimentation, both with microbudgeting and with distribution, is ultimately a positive thing, even when it's not entirely successful.