My Effortless Brilliance
The ever-changing definition of the term hipster is troubling for anyone who either tries to pigeonhole someone into that category or someone who feels that it may be the only way for them to fit in, no matter how insincere the entire concept is. Poseur isn’t quite right, though there’s certainly an element of that, trying to find whatever dated style your clothing, lingo, and taste fit into and how they can be re-interpreted as cool. Hipsterism isn’t entirely predicated on kitsch, either. But it helps define the parameters; especially with what is considered acceptable kitsch versus just lame.
The kitsch category is tricky, because one of the most important facets in becoming part of the hipsterati (besides creating ridiculous, twee words like hipsterati, or describing things as twee) is being dismissive of anything popular or liked by another party for any reason, valid or not*. This dovetails into the phony nihilism within the middle class, who are trying to play poor by avoiding things like nutrition, sleep, and showers, as if discomfort, hunger, and drinking vodka out of enormous plastic bottles were all the rage for anyone beyond the age of 18.
Sean Nelson’s performance in Lynn Shelton’s My Effortless Brilliance as a washed-up, provincial author Eric Lambert Jones (note the unnecessary addition of a middle name) is nearly note perfect — especially in the way he’s envisioned the intentional discomfort in choices of apparel and the way that he’ll partake in an activity he finds unpleasant simply so he can describe it as an off-the-cuff impulse to a friend later on. The film’s funniest moment has Eric talking on the phone about not eating anything all day (acting it out as if he were a famished Scarlett O’Hara, despite his generous girth), “except for a brie incident.” Shelton then cuts to a flashback of Eric attempting to eat an enormous hunk of brie cheese whole, spitting it out in disgust.
Eric is such a phony, timid person that he doesn’t even qualify as passive aggressive. He’s even passive about that. When, early on in My Effortless Brilliance, Basil Harris, playing Eric’s friend Dylan, comes over (a brilliant choice of name, seeing as Eric’s entire persona seems based on being a distant, generational spokesman styled on Bob Dylan, from the shades and the Jewfro on down, even though he looks like a fatter, more awkward version of Hyde from That 70’s Show) and tells Eric he’s a terrible friend, he’s too self-centered to even acknowledge it, let alone ask why.
That we never learn the reason behind Dylan’s detestation of his former friend is a niggling problem with My Effortless Brilliance. But considering Eric’s pervasive elitist and pitying attitude toward the less successful Dylan, it almost doesn’t require an explanation.
When Eric visits Dylan two years later — unannounced, at Dylan’s backwoods cabin, while on a book tour — just the notion that Eric expects Dylan to greet him with open arms and at the same time won’t even cop to the fact that he wanted to see him, despite driving four hours out of his way, Eric tries to suggest he was “in the neighborhood.”
The early scenes at Dylan’s cabin are awkward and funny, and excel in the same way that Shelton’s Humpday did. (My Effortless Brilliance was made first, but never received distribution, except for festival screenings in early 2008 and one showing on The Sundance Channel last week). Eric is not humble enough to notice Dylan’s clear hostility toward him, gritting his teeth during each polite offering of food, drink and a place to sleep. Eric’s unwillingness to loosen up is what makes the scenes work. His combination of snark, distaste and disingenuous manners make his reaction to Dylan’s invitation to come in the cabin that much more humorous, “Do you want to come in or do you want to keep sitting in pine sap?”
Shelton gets lost a bit when Dylan, Eric and Eric’s local friend, Jim, get very drunk and decide to go hunting for a cougar in the woods. The first half of the film feels more scripted; which, despite it being a big advantage in Shelton’s Humpday, doesn’t work as well in My Effortless Brilliance. Eric may tell a brilliantly funny story about being ignored at a celebrity party by Liv Tyler. But as Dylan inexplicably softens up to Eric, Harris loses a bit of grip on Dylan, and he falls into the trap of pop-culture irony (when, despite the suggestion that he’s been on the land a while, Dylan has trouble chopping wood, he asks Jim “what would Dracula do?”). That may be what Harris is like as a person in reality. But the conflict between Eric and Dylan dissipates and has to be replaced by a phony, tarted-up one with Jim.
False actions and choices may be germane to Eric’s character, but plot points and padding do not play to Shelton’s strengths (My Effortless Brilliance is, even at less than 80 minutes, a little drawn out.) That doesn’t necessarily dissipate what works in this slight film, perfectly exemplified by the scene where Eric wakes up the next day after a contentious night with Dylan. Eric looks around, confused, not recognizing anything, no one in the house, no note, as if it were the result of a regrettable one-night-stand. And he was the mistake.
* The brilliant site, Look at this Fucking Hipster encapsulates the current movement quite well, especially when the author compares two similar photos and suggests we take note of “this fucking love connection.” One gets the feeling that if a friend of one of the potential lovers saw a picture of the other partner, and it was already post-coitus, the panicked party might utter something like “well I had an orgasm, but I didn’t really mean it.”