“Ceremony” is a film that thrives on chaos, refusing to establish characters or situations before it tosses the viewer into the thick of discomfort. The disorientation is irksome, but so is much of this exhausting picture, which seems to value secrecy as a way of initiating interest, yet doesn’t offer anything worth the time invested, issuing derivative characters and tuneless situations of longing coated with an ineffective layer of crooked whimsy that often acts like salt in the wound.
An author of violent, unsuccessful children’s books, Sam (Michael Angarano) is eager to exit Brooklyn and make his way to an upstate resort, bringing along estranged pal Marshall (Reece Thompson) for support. While Marshall expects a weekend retreat of reconnection, Sam is driven to crash the wedding weekend of former flame Zoe (Uma Thurman), who’s about to marry pompous documentary filmmaker Whit (Lee Pace, doing a poor impression of Russell Brand). Unexpectedly accepted into the weekend plans, Sam uses the opportunity to win Zoe back, hoping the fill the hole in his soul, while Marshall endures humiliations and injury, with the true purpose of the trip slowly dawning on the simple man.
“Ceremony” marks the feature-length filmmaking debut for writer/director Max Winkler, perhaps best known as the son of television legend Henry Winkler. It seems the younger Winkler has developed a taste for the work of Wes Anderson, cribbing the tone and look of the celebrated director to help build his own arch ode to the disappointment of love and the fallacy of maturation. Not that such pronounced inspiration is an unwelcome development, but Winkler takes more than he gives, commencing “Ceremony” with a severe case of déjà vu, which eventually dissipates, exposing tedium.
Winkler doesn’t have to dream up a community of likable characters, but he does have an obligation to manufacture interesting ones. “Ceremony” is fixated on overly agitated people with mental disorders, which, to the filmmaker, equates to a richly idiosyncratic bunch of personalities set loose in a chaotic setting of beachside partying, introducing drink, drugs, and Zoe’s suicidal brother (Jake M. Johnson) to help with the loose atmosphere. The festivities arrive after the film’s opening act, where Sam and Marshall sprint through affected behaviors and dramatic confusion without anything resembling an introduction, leaving viewers in the company of creeps without a purpose. Winkler believes in the art of the reveal, but he takes far too long to solidify the conflict, burying potentially intriguing tension by keeping his distance, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
There’s nothing about Sam that elicits interest, with Angarano working the surface details of the character (e.g. a propensity for lying) while waiting for Winkler to reel him in. There should be an intense feeling of discomfort in the air as Sam and Zoe discuss future plans and current complications, yet there’s no chemistry there -- Thurman does her best to portray agitation, but her motivation doesn’t carry past her frown. Winkler arranges a series of ‘70’s rock tunes and party activities to sustain interest, but without a gravitational force of emotion generating concern for the lead characters, who cares about any of this?
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation offers an erratic display of HD textures, jumping back and forth between a cool, crisp read of frame details and a soft look with minor contrast problems. Colors are lovely here, with beach and wedding events benefiting from a push of reds and yellows, permitting the festive mood to thrive. Skintones look moderately washed out, while shadow detail also struggles on occasion, unable to pull out details on hair and costumes. The sun-kissed cinematography is successfully articulated on the disc, but it doesn’t always nail the finer points of filmmaking design.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is a rather rudimentary assembly of sound and music, providing a comfortable atmosphere of gathering and confession. Dialogue sounds crisp and clean, delivered with a welcome frontal push to accentuate the performances. Atmospherics are generally active with group shots and beach particulars, with water and voices creating some feeling of depth in the surrounds. Low-end is light, only coming into play with soundtrack cuts, which sound comfortably pronounced, carrying the moment without stepping all over it.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
“Deleted Scenes” (2:11) spends additional time with Marshall, seen here in various states of confusion and dismissal.
“Outtakes” (2:40) offers a routine of giggle fits and improvisational exploration.
“Extended Scene” (2:37) elongates a dinner toast from Zoe’s disturbed brother.
“Making Of” (21:47) assembles interviews with cast and crew (conducted on-set), who explore motivations and characterizations, tossing platitudes around while keeping to a flaccid routine of promotional celebration, communicating delight with everything.
“Max Winkler Makes ‘Ceremony’” (8:18) is the finest extra feature on the disc, capturing Winkler working on the set, dealing with his actors and assembling shots. The interviews are worthless, but the BTS footage is terrific, providing that crucial fly-on-the-wall experience.
“Behind the Scenes Footage” (7:17) repeats BTS footage from elsewhere on the disc, but thankfully removes the interview element to observe the production in motion.
“HDNet Looks at ‘Ceremony’” (4:36) is a commercial for the film’s VOD release.
“A Year in the Tent” (3:58) is a faux documentary from Whit covering his ridiculous adventures in Africa.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
The final act suggests some form of catharsis in play, perhaps even a weird conclusion of revenge, but “Ceremony” doesn’t push hard enough to make the purge stick. It’s a long weekend with these self-involved people, with Winkler revealing his inexperience in full, constructing a painfully unfocused ode to desire and failure. Well, at least the feeling of failure is successfully conveyed.