‘Sopranos’ Creator David Chase Fails to Shake TV Habits in Feature Directorial Debut ‘Not Fade Away’ [NYFF Review]
Posted on Friday, October 5th, 2012 by Angie Han
For a feature filmmaking debut starring a cast of relative unknowns, Not Fade Away has been drawing quite a bit of attention. Because the first-timer at the helm isn’t just anyone, you see — it’s Sopranos creator David Chase. If television today has shed its reputation as cinema’s lesser sibling, it’s because of high-quality entertainments like Chase’s beloved mob drama. Translating that knack for storytelling into filmmaking just seems like a natural next step.
And yet, if anything, Chase’s work in Not Fade Away actually emphasizes what the two mediums don’t have in common. In Chase’s hands, a premise that could’ve worked equally well for TV or film turns into a messy, meandering movie that feels like it should’ve been a 13-episode season of an HBO drama.
To be sure, Not Fade Away has the ingredients for a great youth classic. The narrative follows the not-quite-rise and not-quite-fall of a small suburban rock band in early- to mid-’60s New Jersey. Chase captures that setting with precise, loving detail, wisely avoiding the temptation to overdo the period flourishes. It’s wonderfully easy to forget we’re not really looking at a suburb in the ’60s, but a movie set in 2012.
Protagonist Doug (John Magaro) is a latecomer to the band, but soon emerges as its most talented and ambitious member. His soulfulness as an artist leads to a romance with beautiful, popular Grace (Bella Heathcote), who barely noticed Doug when they were in high school together. Meanwhile, the culture of the ’60s seeps into the suburbs in the form of shaggier haircuts, higher heels, looser sexual mores, political correctness, tampons, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a rich, meaty premise for a coming-of-age tale, and the fact that it’s semi-autobiographical adds a welcome personal touch.
It’s a shame, then, that two major problems sink the film. The first is Chase’s abrupt pacing, which covers both too much ground and too little. Subplots that could’ve been movies in themselves come and go with little impact. Doug’s sister (Meg Guzulescu) narrates the film as she lives out her own coming-of-age tale in the background, but her arc is at best peripheral to the primary one. (In fact, I’m not sure the siblings ever exchange a word.) Life-changing moments arrive practically out of nowhere, and then fade into the background with nary a shrug. Were Not Fade Away reconceived as television series, these arcs might have gotten their due, but within the confines of a two-hour movie, Chase has little time to do anything but jump in and jump out.
The main plot threads are treated no better. Doug and Grace barely have their first kiss before Chase smash-cuts to the couple having sex; the rest of their romance’s ups and downs are treated with similarly off-putting bluntness. The jerkiness makes it difficult to establish where or when Doug is at any given moment. Is he in college? Then why is he home? Exactly how old is Grace supposed to be, and where does she go to school? When the movie finally concludes, it seems to be less because the story has reached some logical endpoint than because Chase has run out of time.
But I can forgive a lot of a film if I’m invested in the characters, so perhaps the even bigger problem here is Doug himself. As the protagonist, he should be our guide through this tumultuous time. Unfortunately, he’s — how do I put this delicately? — a pretentious little shit. A Mick Jagger-loving Bob Dylan lookalike with a permanent sneer, Doug boasts about his “important” work as a musician while assuming he’s entitled fame, fortune, and love. Grace faithfully encourages him to reach his full potential as a musician; he tells her she should become a movie actress to complement his rock star career, even after she’s expressed her lack of interest in the field.
To be sure, that insufferable combination of naivete and smugness is an accurate representation of many teens from most eras (I shudder to recall myself at that age), and Chase never pretends that Doug is smart or good for saying those things. Chase does, however, assume that Doug is interesting, which he isn’t. There’s little to Doug beyond his self-conscious affectations, which makes him tough to sympathize with and even tougher to root for. That goes double in scenes involving Doug’s working class father, played masterfully by James Gandolfini. In his queasy mixture of affection and anger toward his son, Gandolfini’s performance perfectly sums up the generational divide that emerged during that age.
Between Chase’s lackluster storytelling and his unpleasant lead, Not Fade Away winds up a coming-of-age tale with no actual coming of age. By the time the credits roll, we’ve seen Doug get scouted, fall in love, move out of state, and consider a new career. Yet it all seems so pointless, because he’s not appreciably wiser than he was ninety minutes (or, within the film’s timeline, years) ago. Relatively late in the film, Grace drags Doug to an arthouse film, only for him to whine, “What kind of movie is this? Nothing happens.” Oh, like you’re one to talk.
/Film rating: 4.0 out of 10.0