Actors-Turned-Fauxteurs

Mid90s falls in the unfortunate middle ground between what an artist thinks will be cinematically cool, and what’s actually cinematic, and cinematically well-executed.

In this case, that artist is, unexpectedly, Jonah Hill.

As much as I try to avoid presuming the unknowable origins of any piece of art — interviews tend to reveal nothing more than what the powers-that-be consider the most marketable BS — Hill’s approach to his writing and directing debut sure feels like he spent his childhood — like I, and a host of other Hollywood dreamers — imagining his life as a movie. Luckily for him, his fame and fortune afforded him the chance to transform his fantasies into reality.

Setting his upbringing in the skating culture of — you’ll never guess, based on the title — the mid-90s to a soundtrack consisting of his favorite songs from the era and an original Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score probably sounded badass in his head. It’s safe to say everything depicted here means a great deal to him, and played a profound role in his life, but he fails to translate that personal connection to the screen; it’ll only resonate with those who have a preexisting relationship to either the music or the skating scene, and that’s kind of the definition of ineffective, empty, easy nostalgia, no?

Though wanting to adapt your life into art is dubious inspiration — especially without a clear idea of how it can speak to communities outside your own — masterpieces have come from worse; in the right hands, a piece can grow beyond the intentions of its creators. But Hill’s amateur fingerprints are too detectable throughout, and this accidental artifice prevents the sort of immersion steeped in specificity that breeds universal multitudes.

And now, I must bring up the inevitable comparisons to Skate Kitchen, a superior movie from this year that’s also a coming-of-age story about an outsider from a troubled family who finds themselves through falling into a makeshift, but real, home amongst fellow skaters, and their new fast friend groups learn some tough, essential life lessons the hard way along the way. Their respective leads belong to different genders, and though Mid90s is aware of the scene’s toxic, faux masculinity — what with the preponderance of casually using “gay” and “fag” as a pejorative — it’s really more of a mere depiction than a sufficient examination, a transparent attempt at adding depth to a rather shallow affair. The ultimate conclusion is that such ignorance, specifically the desire to put down others who men consider less manly than themselves, is fueled by…insecurity?

…And?

Really?

Wait, that’s it?

As much as I dig its mid-90s skate-videotape aesthetic, the framing is about as plain and basic as it comes, a far-cry from the distinctiveness — almost experimentally so — of the source cinematography (if only the whole shebang had been filmed like the final sequence). Skate Kitchen, given its contemporary context, goes with more of an iPhone look, channeling the skate videos of today, a comparative wash. But Skate Kitchen surpasses Mid90s’ execution everywhere else; its young cast of neophyte thespians sound authentic, whereas Mid90s’ seem like they were directed to deliver all the forced comedy in the immediately-recognizable voice of Hill’s performances.

Such are the perils of the auteur theory on actors-turned-directors; audiences are much more likely to project their heightened familiarity with the actors’ oeuvres onto their directorial products. I don’t want to open the critical Pandora’s box that is A Star is Born, but one of my many problems is that I, or it, can’t detach itself from these projections. All I can see is Bradley Cooper trying to make a movie, trying to pull off an obvious yet needlessly-convoluted narrative and visual structure, and Lady Gaga trying to act, oh and there’s Cooper trying a laughable Sam Elliot impersonation; I can’t see the movie past what it’s too-clearly trying to be, on and off screen.

Our response to art is always tainted by subjectivity, so perhaps this review only applies to yours truly. Would I have the same reactions to A Star is Born and Mid90s if they were stripped of their credits? Who knows. With Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham exceeds what we’d predict a viral YouTuber is capable of…but maybe it’s easier to overcome that stigma than erasing a career’s worth of expectations?

Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased also stands as a testament to the benefits of stepping behind the camera before firmly establishing a brand that colors — and, potentially, limits — our evaluations. Since Edgerton was by no means a household name before 2015’s The Gift, his directorial debut, most had almost no frame-of-reference through which to analyze his output. Since he’s still not an A-lister in a majority of households, audiences will not filter Boy Erased through their Edgerton expectations (the movie has other problems, but that’s a piece for another day…that I will never write because, though perfectly fine, I don’t care enough about it one way or the other to spend the time).

Boy Erased does serve as a reminder of one of the consistent upsides to actors-turned-directors: they appear to believe that anyone can act, willing to take chances on the unseasoned, from Lady Gaga and Dave Chappelle in A Star is Born, to Flea and Trove Sivan in Boy Erased, and of course the young’uns in Mid90s. The cynical read would be to claim that their classic movie-star egos convince them that they have enough overflowing talent to spare, and share they do.

That might sound snide, but it actually tends to be true: they elicit rather good performances from their ensembles, and not just because there’s inherent excitement in seeing a beloved celebrity in a fresh context; acting clearly comes naturally to these helmers. As such, it’s not too much of a stretch to expect the inverse could be true too: since they’re not natural hands with the camera, their work bears marks of an unsteady hand in a new vocation.

Even with quality components, they just can’t put it all together…yet (gotta stay optimistic!).

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