By Thomas Puhr
The tried and true formula of the road movie has persisted through the ages, producing films both great (Planes, Trains & Automobiles) and forgettable (The Guilt Trip and Due Date, to name but a few recent examples). The general arc of these stories is more or less the same: Two mismatched people are stuck together during an extended road trip and bicker their way through an assortment of misadventures, only to eventually learn important and heartwarming lessons about one another.
On the surface, director-star Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel (2011) adheres to this general framework. Perry plays Colin, an acid-tongued twenty-something who is recruited by his lazy, aspiring-weatherwoman sister, JR (Carlen Altman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Perry), to drive her to the apartment of her ex-boyfriend/ex-professor so she can pick up her stuff. Like many a road movie, the structure of the film is episodic: The constantly-arguing couple pretend to be husband and wife in order to be allowed to spend the night at a motel headed by a religious zealot (“We have a wonderful marriage…I’m so happy, I can’t stop smiling. Most of the time my face hurts,” JR explains to the owner), confront JR’s ex-boyfriend at his apartment (where he already has a new student living with him), attend a party thrown by an old high school friend, and so forth.
What sets the film apart, though, is how it plays with the conventions of the road movie. The film itself (shot in black and white, 16-mm film) looks and feels like a grainy home movie. The dialogue, though loaded with hilarious one-liners, often feels rushed and is sometimes even stumbled through by some of the supporting actors. The editing choices seem clunky and odd in places. All of this makes the film feel haphazard, even amateurish. And yet, these blatant issues somehow strengthen the film’s naturalistic charm.
The exchanges between JR and Colin in particular almost always ring true; Altman and Perry not only look like brother and sister, but also perfectly capture the sarcastic, yet playful mean-spiritedness of siblings. For example, when JR asks Colin why he and their parents went on a vacation without her, his tart response is: “Because they don’t like you. And I think the exact words were: ‘I want this vacation to be relaxing and pleasant, not a humongous pain in the ass like it will be if JR is around.’” Perry and Altman’s screenplay also takes the time to establish and subtly explore these characters’ eccentricities, such as Colin’s obsession with collecting gargoyle figurines or JR’s habit of smelling random objects.
And then there’s that enigmatic title. Perry has stated that it originated from his memory of a beloved childhood film named The Color Wheel, which he later discovered does not exist. The title, therefore, may have absolutely no bearing on the actual content of the film. On the other hand, since the film opens with one of its final scenes and then jumps backward to explore what led to that moment, the bulk of it may be interpreted as a flashback (or memory) stemming from those first few shots. Memory also plays a key role in an important monologue given by JR (more on this later).
Or perhaps the title hints at the diverse group of misfit, immature characters populating the story. Indeed, there is something almost childish about the title’s words themselves, which call to mind elementary school art classes. JR and Colin, though often brutally and offensively mean to one another, are also just as often childish and vulnerable. At one point, JR, trying on a shirt to wear to her ex-boyfriend’s, asks Colin: “Do I look barely legal in a mature way?” Ultimately, the title can mean any of these things, none of them, or something else entirely, depending on one’s approach.
The emotional climax of the duo’s journey occurs at their grandparents’ cabin, where they both finally shed their ironic, sarcastic exteriors and have a genuine conversation about their fears and dreams. It is here that Altman has a wonderfully-written monologue, delivered during an uninterrupted, roughly 12-minute-long shot. The outcome of this conversation is indeed shocking, but the material is handled with a surprising warmth and thoughtfulness; the jarring elements of these final scenes, though somewhat clumsily delivered, service the dynamic of the characters and are not just thrown in for shock value.
Perry and company deliver a finale (and film) that is somehow endearing instead of revolting; the shot of an opening door has never been so subversively optimistic. Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), another film which took similarly-dicey subject matter and turned it into something touching and even funny (without being glib), comes to mind. Though Perry’s efforts are far less successful than Malle’s were, the fact that he was willing to take his and Altman’s characters in such unexpected directions (and nearly, nearly sticks the landing) speaks to his merit as a filmmaker and raises The Color Wheel above the generic road-trip comedy.