THE STORY – Lucy seeks enlightenment. The former child actress makes a pilgrimage to join her guru, Elon Bello, for a silent retreat at a beautiful mountain resort with a Tesla-crammed parking lot. Before she shuts off her phone to the world, Lucy reaches out to her daughter, Dylan — a stunt person training for a dangerous fight scene — to interrupt her concentration and announce that she will be unavailable and out of range, and that she is very worried about her, and that she might extend her stay. It is co-dependent, bad behavior. When a young model/DJ/influencer at the retreat is paired up with Lucy to do a mother/daughter role-playing exercise, hellfire stokes Lucy’s bad behavior to an astonishing low.
THE CAST – Jennifer Connelly, Ben Whishaw, Alice Englert, Ana Scotney, Dasha Nekrasova & Marlon Williams
THE TEAM – Alice Englert (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
Last year, “Barbarian” reminded us that it is sometimes refreshing to experience a film committed to diverging from traditional storytelling structure and presenting a chaotic tone. This year, “Bad Behavior” reminds us why viewers do crave a more familiar structure and adherence to a consistent tone. This feature directorial debut from Jane Campion’s daughter, Alice Englert, is a rambling mishmash of ideas, storylines, and various tones that manages to feel contradictory, undercooked, and, worst of all, uninteresting.
The film follows the parallel storylines of Lucy (Jennifer Connelly), a former child actor seeking to find meaning in her life at a zen retreat led by Elon (Ben Whishaw), a spiritual guru. At the same time, her daughter Dylan (Alice Englert) struggles with her relationship with Lucy and her own career as a stunt performer.
“Bad Behaviour’s” biggest struggle is not its inconsistent tone, messy structure, or annoying and pseudo-intellectual dialogue. The issue is much worse than that: There is almost no reason to care about any of the characters, as everyone at Lucy’s retreat is a caricature. The film intends to satirize vapidity masquerading as intellectualism, but it cannot commit to being a satire. Instead, it frequently swings into earnest drama, and the thin groundwork laid for the characters means that the drama can’t stand alone. The attempted satire runs on for the film’s first hour, deliberately presenting annoying characters spouting insane intro-to-philosophy ideas. And then the story adds a wild, unpredictable mid-plot development that jerks you back into being interested before settling into an only slightly engaging mother-daughter relationship drama. To Englert’s credit, some interesting themes are explored, such as the universal fear of aging. Unfortunately, the film uses a therapy setting to excuse its characters from discussing these themes in the least on-the-nose fashion imaginable. Some of the characters’ decisions throughout the film are fascinating, even the bold choices Englert makes with her screenplay. But they are only sometimes supported by the writing. They leave the characters feeling less like human beings and more like agents dedicated to providing occasional surprises to an otherwise unengaging film.
The uncomfortable wobbly tone produces a few memorable moments. One delightfully uncomfortable scene involving characters pretending to act like screaming infants as a partner exercises at the retreat is hysterical in its absurdity. And the before-mentioned mid-movie plot development needs to be seen to be believed.
It’s a shame that the characters and plot for “Bad Behaviour” are so undercooked because Jennifer Connelly is trying her hardest to elevate the material. She has some compelling line deliveries where the camera fixates directly on her face as she struggles to hold herself together. In a better-written movie, this could have been one of her best performances. Instead, she’s an anachronism, something resembling a natural human in a world of poorly written characters.
Alice Englert shows some promise as a visual director, even if her mastery of tone and pacing could be better. The production design, costumes, and color filters work together at times to create intriguing images as she frames Lucy nicely enough to emphasize her sense of isolation. And confident choices, such as shooting upwards at actors, are striking, even if they don’t necessarily serve the story. There are hallucinatory dream-sequences punctuating proceedings that sometimes have evocative images that remind one of the ghostly long-haired creatures in “The Grudge.” There is even an animated sequence to mix proceedings up at one point. The music and sound design are, at times, experimental and exciting. One track features what appears to be a montage of people making a popping sound with their lips.
The problem is, while these elements are engaging in a vacuum, they’re in service of a film that doesn’t know what it wants to say. Like Connelly’s performance, there is competent dedication here, but it amounts to very little. Messy films can be interesting, even delightful, at times. But messy, tedious, and boring films like “Bad Behavior” are truly and utterly insufferable.