John Cameron Mitchell is a man of many talents, talents which erupted in 2001 when he wrote, directed and starred in to-be cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a devilishly stylish, strictly adult, anti-musical about a transgender punk-rocker from East Berlin. Mitchell has flexed his filmmaking muscles infrequently since, his most notable follow-up work being 2010’s sorrowful study of marital grief, the well-regarded Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. With his latest work, the somewhat over-named How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Mitchell exercises a different set of sinew, stretching into unfamiliar territory – new-age punk-rock sci-fi – in an effort that reaches for the stars but comes up a parsec short.
Frustratingly hit-and-miss, How to Talk to Girls at Parties adapts Neil Gaiman’s 2006 short, squaring the work as a kind of Punk vs. Alien culture war film. The tagline for the movie, “Talk to the Girl, Save the World” sums up the wonkiness succinctly as this is never a movie about saving the world, nor does talking to the girl ever pose much of a hurdle. In fact, the coupling of punk and alien is as natural as smooshing together peanut butter and jelly or Neil DeGrasse Tyson and a “Well actually…” comment and never is the fate of the world at stake, despite the intimidating FetLife get-ups these ETs find themselves stuffed in.
Working from a screenplay co-written by Philippa Goslett (the upcoming Mary Magdalene), Parties tells the story of literal star-crossed lovers Enn (Alex Sharp) and Zan (Elle Fanning). Enn roves the streets of 70s Croydon, a rundown suburb of London thick with spillover culture of the erupting punk scene, until a mix-up lands him at some kind of galactic alien retreat. Zan, wanting a taste for local culture beyond boring observation, is thrilled at the prospect of exploring Earth with a true-blue native and the two abscond into the night to “show [her] the punk.”
How to Talk to Girls at Parties threatens at many points to be strange without reason. There’s alien fisting orgies, synchronized dance fights, catwalk-inspired pleather costumery, intergalactic treaties with their various rules and regulations, and kaleidoscopical sing-a-longs and though some of the moments may prove livening in the moment, they rarely contribute to a greater sense of purpose, the film just kind of meandering through this extraterrestrial museum of strange for strangeness’ sake. As a series of visual tableaus, however, Parties can be a wild time, consistently off its axis and serviceably goofy. Comedic moments shine through while Fanning’s giddy fish-out-of-water act livening the mood, keeping the wacky charm hard to ignore. Fanning and Sharp anchor the proceedings with more-than-decent screen chemistry but with shallow character development and not much substance to their love story beyond a fascination with “the other”, Parties doesn’t find much room to lean its romance upon and falls apart as the relationship between the two stretches into different shapes.
Did I mention that Nicole Kidman shows up as a weathered punk scene matriarch who wouldn’t seem amiss on Rupaul’s Drag Race? Again, it’s a wild bit of stunt casting, especially for what is essentially a throwaway role that doesn’t amount to a ton more than the surface level appeal of Kidman playing a kind of acid-bathed Cruella de Vil but even in spite of its superficiality, the playful, “who gives a damn?” nature of Parties can be totally spellbinding. Almost by accident at times.
CONCLUSION: ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ doesn’t have the cult appeal of John Cameron Mitchell’s ‘Hedwig’ but this experimental genre-bender is a wildly off-center punk-rock-tinged sci-fi-romantic romp, despite being choppy and inconsistent and poorly told at times. Squares need not apply.