A bit irony-rich for my blood overall, The Color Wheel nonetheless culminates in a remarkable single take of sustained acting, especially considering the pair on screen are relative newcomers Carlen Altman and Alex Ross Perry.
Perry is also the director and co-writer (along with Altman), and if that sort of triple play sets off your narcissism alarm bells, be assured: The Color Wheel is very aware of the incestuousness of that sort of navel-gazing, and in fact makes it a central theme.
Altman and Perry play JR and Colin, twentysomething siblings who have vaguely kept in touch. Colin has settled into an unexamined life as a corporate writer and half-hearted boyfriend; JR pursues an acting and broadcasting career, as long as it doesn’t require her to wake up too early in the morning. When the media professor she had been living with kicks her out, she calls on Colin to help her move her things, kicking off a brother-sister reunion of camaraderie and accusation.
Perry’s aesthetic combines the whiny pitch of mumblecore and the social anxiety of David Lynch.
The performances make all of this work (even if Perry plays Colin as a Michael Cera doppelganger). Altman and Perry manage a teasing banter that’s true to most brother-sister relationships, while also hinting at an additional edge. What the two share, more than anything else, is a derisive contempt for almost everyone and everything around them, which they wrap in snarky comments of pseudo-sincerity. (The grainy black-and-white cinematography only heightens the movie’s us-versus-them bilateralism.) When they turn this precision criticism on each other, The Color Wheel finally unearths some real feeling.
As a director, Perry’s aesthetic combines the whiny pitch of mumblecore and the social anxiety of David Lynch. The scenes of JR and Colin together have an amusing, self-indulgent intimacy, so much so that when other people enter the frame, they seem to have arrived from some strange universe. When JR and Colin go to a party thrown by a former high-school classmate, it’s as if they’re in a Lynchian nightmare: a bully pours wine down Colin’s shirt, to which he barely reacts; JR is subjected to a stilted interrogation about her career aspirations; a guest in a wheelchair later is able to walk; Colin’s make-out session with a former crush comes to an abrupt, matter-of-fact end. It’s only when JR and Colin are together again on their own that we seem to be back on planet Earth.
Which brings us to that climactic long take, 11 minutes in all and entirely dependent on the performances. Cinematically, there is nothing more than JR and Colin engaged in a circling conversation – aside from one telling moment when the handheld camera “gets up” and jostles closer, suggesting that a surprise is about to arrive. One does, but it’s less a shocker than a confirmation of what the movie has been telling us all along: unable to form a real connection with anyone else, JR and Colin are left with something that at least seems better than being alone: each other.