Emily Baldoni (center) is one of many dinner partiers who is freaked out in "Coherence." Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories
‘Coherence’ Director: James Ward Byrkit Stars: Emily Baldoni, Nicholas Brendon Rating: NR 4 (out of 5) Globes
There are few things sadder in the movie business than brain-teasers that think they’re more mind-blowing than they are. The recent “The Signal” is one of those. “Coherence,” another indie, is not. It is, if anything, too crazy, too unwieldy. That’s fine because — like Shane Carruth's "Primer” and “Upstream Color," both obvious influences — it’s about characters stumbling into territory they struggle to understand, if they ever can. It’s not afraid to lose the audience because that puts them in the shoes of its characters, who fumble about trying to very badly solve a grad-level physics class puzzle together.
It starts all too “Twilight Zone” (another glaring influence). A group of thirty- and forty-something Los Angelinos have congregated for a dinner party the night a comet is destined to pass unusually close to the earth. Even before things get hairy, smartphone faces unaccountably crack. Then the lights go out. Then they come back on. Then phone and Internet go out. One of them remembers that his scientist brother told him that if “anything weird happens” to try and call him, but to remain indoors. A couple of them break this, and they return with mind-melting news that we won’t spoil here.
Hey! It's Xander from "Buffy" (Nicholas Brendon, right) in the new mind-blowing indie sci-fi "Coherence." Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Key to “Coherence”’s charms isn’t necessarily the crazy business that happens (which is treated with a rich and loopy sense of humor, especially once everyone looks for flashlights and instead finds glowsticks). It’s the way co-writer-director James Ward Byrkit — a longtime Gore Verbinski collaborator — focuses not on brainiacs, as in “Primer,” but on smart but mostly under-informed NPR types, who know enough to slowly piece all this together but not enough that they don’t usually descend into blabbering, shouting and drinking. Indeed, “Coherence” is largely improvised, with a game cast first believably under-reacting to some weird business with laughter and disbelief, then always maintaining a degree of levity (read: jokes and occasional put-downs) even when stuff has gotten real. (Among the funnier gags is that Nicholas Brendon — aka Xander from “Buffy” — is playing a cranky, under-known actor who says he was on the entire run of “Roswell.”)
An Aaron Sorkin-style gabfest populated by casual idiots, “Coherence” is never not addictive, even if it has some rookie-feature-filmmaker issues. Chief among those are sudden cuts to black — a good idea that proves disarming early on but is forgotten about as the film goes on. And inevitably, once things have (largely) been figured out, interest can’t help but wane. But Byrkit had all along been quietly planting the seeds for a more emotional thread, so that once the intellectual game has petered out, he has something to replace it. “Coherence” isn’t as bewildering as “Primer,” but it gets you on another level.