The Spectacular Now
Today’s post is part book review, part movie review. It’s a mookie review!
I always get my hopes up for movie adaptations of books I liked. And I usually get let down. Movie adaptations are tough to get right. First of all, if I’ve read a book before I see the movie, I go into the movie with expectations (and lots of ’em). And the movie interpretations are never as good as the images I’ve created in my mind while reading. Some examples:
Katniss Everdeen’s girl-on-fire dress was not as dramatic as it should have been (nor was her chariot costume, for that matter. Or the Capitol costumes, generally).
Robert Pattinson is hot, yeah, but he’s not hot enough to be Edward Cullen.
The inferi (and the entire horcrux cave, really) weren’t nearly creepy enough.
Plus, there are always changes from the book to the movie that blindside you. Chuck Palahniuk said that, after seeing the Fight Club movie, he was “sort of embarrassed of the book“–the movie made the plot tighter and the ending played up the romance in a positive way. But, let’s be honest: that’s a stand-out. More often than not, changes, especially major ones, are a disappointment (the movie version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was just a disaster).
The Spectacular Now is no different. I finished reading the book about three hours before I saw the movie, so it was very fresh in my mind. There were some things that exceeded my expectations and were improvements on the book. There were also some changes that were huge disappointments. Standing alone, the movie is pretty good. But the Hollywood adaptation fails to capture the honesty of the book, and the changed ending just made me mad.
First, a bit about the book:
The Spectacular Now is a YA book of The Fault in Our Stars‘ ilk. It was a National Book Award finalist in 2008, and it doesn’t have the dumbed-down feel of bad YA. I tore through it in about a day–partly because I wanted to make sure I finished it before seeing the movie, and partly because it was a compelling, quick read. It’s not a “happily ever after” kind of book; it’s a pretty realistic look at kids and drinking and making mistakes (despite having good intentions) and growing up.
The beginning is a perfect introduction to the protagonist, Sutter Keely. Sutter stops by 7-11 in the morning to pick up a big 7UP to doctor his whiskey before heading to his girlfriend’s house (they’re both skipping school). At the 7-11, he runs into a six-year-old kid who is running away from home. The kid asks Sutter for a ride to Florida to find his dad. Remembering his own dad’s departure, Sutter’s heartstrings get tugged, and he decides to help the kid out. He drives (drunk, of course) the kid home and promises to smooth things over with the kid’s mom when she finds out the kid isn’t in school.
This brief interaction paints a pretty good picture of Sutter: he is an alcoholic, he’s spontaneous, and he has some daddy issues. His heart is in the right place and he wants to be a hero, but he doesn’t have the greatest judgment, and he doesn’t really think things through (I’ll give you one guess as to how the kid’s mom reacts to Sutter, reeking of alcohol, randomly showing up at her house with her baby).
The book follows Sutter through his senior year of high school. He gets dumped by his “damn beautifully fat . . . like if you took Marilyn Monroe and pumped up her curves three sizes with an air hose,” wonderful, and popular girlfriend, Cassidy, and drowns his sorrows with booze. The next morning, he is awakened on a strange lawn by the nerdy, awkward, passive Aimee Finecky, who is in the middle of her paper route.
Sutter starts hanging out with Aimee. Ricky, Sutter’s best friend, asks him, “So what are you gonna do, give her a makeover like in the movies where they turn the nerd girl into a raging hottie?” Sutter explains that Aimee could never be a hottie—“[s]he doesn’t have the attitude—that inner positive charge. You can tell by just looking at her slouchy little duck-footed walk.”
But he wants to help her. Or maybe even save her soul. At least until Cassidy takes him back.
The Spectacular Now is a coming-of-age story. Sutter likes to have a good time, and he’s super charming and charismatic . . . but he’s not too good at actually loving anyone or, for that matter, being loved. Instead, his default is to try to make people happy and help them and appease them. He thinks only of the present without worrying about future consequences. And that usually works out well for him. But Sutter gets in over his head with Aimee and realizes his M.O. is not going to cut it. He has to man up.
And, now, the movie:
The movie got rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival this year and critics love it. It has been compared to classic John Hughes movies. But it is still only in limited release, so you may not have heard much about it. If you haven’t seen the trailer, you should watch it:
Before I get into the meat of the movie review, I have a quick gripe. Remember Sutter’s description of Cassidy with the pumped-up curves? She is described numerous times in the book as beautifully fat. It is the thing Sutter loves most about her. Well, here’s movie Cassidy:
I mean, who are we kidding? Needless to say, that was a disappointment.
But, otherwise, the casting was brilliant. Deservingly, the movie got the Special Jury Award for acting at Sundance. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as Sutter and Aimee are spot on. I was expecting Woodley to be good (she was great in The Descendants), and she didn’t disappoint. She was earnest and sweet and impressionable.
But the stand-out in this movie is Miles Teller. Man. That kid is goooooood. Like, really good. In the book, Sutter’s motivations and feelings, which are often different from the front he portrays to others, are spelled out by the narrator. That wasn’t the case in the movie, so Teller had his work cut out for him relaying that complexity subtly. And, on top of all that emotion, Sutter is buzzed pretty much all of the time. Teller portrayed all of this believably and impressively.
So. The acting was great . . . but I still didn’t love it. Why? The screenplay.
The book was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote (500) Days of Summer and who also did the adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars. While the adaptation is very true to the book in many ways (there were conversations taken verbatim from the book and scenes that were exactly as I pictured them while reading), there were some serious digressions, as well. And that was its downfall.
There are two differences that made it an unsuccessful adaptation:
1) The movie starts with Sutter writing a college-application essay. For the Sutter Keely of the book, this doesn’t make sense. Sutter is all about “the spectacular now.” He’s not good at looking toward the future. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do after graduation, and he’s OK with that. So, the movie’s start fundamentally changes who he is. And the rest of the movie portrays him as someone who rooted in the present, so that made the changed beginning even more glaring.
2) Look, I get it: a movie-goer wants to leave the theater happy and uplifted. But one of the best characteristics of the book is that it’s not cheesy, and it’s not trite. I can’t say the same for the movie. Unlike the book, the movie’s ending is a little ridiculous. It is a 180-degree turn from the book’s ending.
After we finished watching the movie, my stepsister (who hasn’t read the book) said, “That ending didn’t make sense.” She explained why, but it would be a spoiler to share that here. Suffice it to say, my response to her was simply, “Read the book. You’ll be much happier with how it ends.”
Rating: 4/5 📖
For a YA book, it’s a little dark and pretty real. Sutter is happy-go-lucky on the outside, but he’s dealing with a lot of shit internally. He is very likeable, but he’s also totally fucked up, so you (like some of the other characters in the book) are torn between wanting to be his BFF and feeling sorry for him. You’re rooting for him, because he has such a big heart, but you also want to give him a swift kick in the ass and tell him to get it together.
Author Tim Tharp did a good job tapping into his high-school characters. I was definitely reminded of what it was like to be in high school. He deals with teen drinking in a realistic, non-preachy way. He accurately captures the volatile nature of high-school relationships (both romances and friendships). And he tackles the topic of emotional growth without being schmalzy.
Who should read it: my stepsister, Lindsay (i.e., people who liked The Fault in Our Stars and who think the movie version of The Spectacular Now should have ended differently).
Rating: 3/5 🎬
My expectations for the movie play a big role in my mediocre rating. Some of the best parts of the book were left out of the movie. Remember that 7-11 scene with the six year old? Not in the movie. Scenes like that really shaped Sutter—they made him much more real and multi-faceted and interesting. Without those scenes, some of Sutter’s complexity was lost. Also, the ending really didn’t work for me.
But Teller and Woodley were really great. And despite the flaws in the screenplay, the movie was well done. The John Hughes comparisons are apt. If I hadn’t read the book and didn’t have that frame of reference, I probably would have given the movie a 4/5.
Who should watch it: my stepsister, Dawn (i.e., people who love John Hughes’ movies); people who haven’t read the book (and don’t intend to).