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'The Spectacular Now' depicts a romance that maybe shouldn't work out

"The Spectacular Now" takes a look at a romance, between a popular kid (Miles Teller) and a nerd (Shailene Wooley), that possibly shouldn't work out.

Shailene Wooley and Miles Teller probably shouldn't be together in "The Spectacular Now." Wilford Harewood Shailene Wooley and Miles Teller probably shouldn't be together in "The Spectacular Now."
Credit: Wilford Harewood

‘The Spectacular Now’
Director: James Ponsoldt
Stars: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The basic setup of “The Spectacular Now” isn’t far off from “She’s All That”: Popular high schooler Sutter (Miles Teller) finds himself wooing a nerd, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), who turns out to be cooler/hotter than he at first imagined. That’s more or less where the similarities end. The key difference, other than this being an eccentrically and energetically directed (by James Ponsoldt, of the similarly grounded alkie drama "Smashed") indie with major awards hopes, is that Sutter isn’t a squeaky clean Ambercrombie rent-a-hunk in the manner of Freddie Prinze Jr. He’s a bottoming-out, self-destructive alkie, and it’s never clear whether he and Aimee should even be together.

The radical notion of mismatched screen lovers who may not be together come film’s end isn’t strange to screenwriters Scott Neustadtler and Michael H. Weber, who previously wrote “(500) Days of Summer.” That was a gimmicky breakup saga with real moments of hard-earned pain. “Now” doesn’t have a fat structural hook. Sutter is an ambitionless senior who forever sips from a spiked fountain soda cup and speaks of living permanently in the now. To his peers, his state of permanent inebriation has been looking less and less attractive, particularly as he’s yet to send off college applications.

His macking on Aimee, a wiz kid whose mother thinks college would interfere with her paper route, is mostly a way to get back his ex (Brie Larson). Aimee, who’s never been kissed, remains powerfully oblivious to the admittedly charming Sutter’s real motives, in part because Sutter keeps forgetting about them, too. He keeps getting caught up in the moment, and the film’s most thrilling aspect is wondering whether he’s falling for her for real or whether he’s playing a long con.

Even if she may prove beneficial to him, pulling him out of the deepening despair that comes with mounting self-actualization, he may be terrible for her. Among other things, “Now” is a casually realistic depiction of mutual alcoholism, with Aimee learning to like and meet her lover’s daily drinking intake. (For prom, instead of a corsage, he gifts her a flask.) The film has a problem with cliches: Sutter is filling out a college application essay in the opening, and you better believe that will come back at the end to demonstrate change. But like “(500) Days of Summer,” whatever numerous sops it makes to placate as wide an audience as possible it, like its antihero, remains smarter than it lets on, particularly with a surprise final moment that throws out the right question.

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