Sundance: Thoroughbreds and Bad Education director Cory Finley makes his first misstep in this airless satire of extraterrestrial capitalism.
Cory Finley’s much-welcomed mission to make every high school film imaginable – at a time when few other serious filmmakers bother to make any high school film – will come to an end with the third feature film and first misstep of the young director continued. Like Thoroughbreds and Bad Education before it, Landscape with Invisible Hand draws on the ecology of teenage America in a satirical and/or hauntingly sad class comedy that explores the value of empathy in capitalism. not how Each of these two movies is full of slimy little aliens that look like a frozen supermarket tongue turkey.
Dubbed Vuvv (rhymes with “love,” not “clicquot”), as this story begins in 2036, these squat pink colonizers have been holding Earth’s economy hostage for more than five years. They didn’t take over the planet by blowing up the White House or terrorizing major cities with tripods, they simply disrupted the tech sector with enough alien shenanigans to have forced the human race to conform to the vuvv’s cold vision of the future or preserve their remaining dignity below the poverty line.
“This is a great time for entrepreneurs!” says one of the Bret Baier-looking bootlickers anchoring Fox News’ Vuvv equivalent. If its nauseating catchphrase proves typical of an airless film in which the satire is often too blunt to be funny and the drama too contrived to be poignant, it also demonstrates the film’s increasingly compassionate interest in the to examine the hierarchy of needs of the human species. Food and shelter come first, but not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur – not everyone wants to give up the analogue pleasures of life just because they might be able to share a small share of the profits.
Aspiring young artist Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk) was raised by a currently absent father who chose the latter, and our downtrodden but still defiant hero would happily carry on that legacy if he can afford it. But he can’t. His mother (Tiffany Haddish) has been unemployed for ages, she can’t pay the electric bills for the family’s crumbling New England home, and school shit gets super depressing; “Landscape With An Invisible Hand,” which borrows its title from MT Anderson’s novel of the same name and is also one of the many paintings Finley uses to succinctly convey the film’s timeline and backstory, begins with Adam’s homeroom teacher changing after the end shoots in the head The profession is made obsolete by the Vuvv technology.
In this case, that technology is the fridge magnet-like knot that humans wear on their foreheads to receive telepathic signals – and Vuvv history lessons – from their alien overlords. But the knots can also radiate signals back, which Adam and his opportunistic new girlfriend Chloe (Kylie Rogers) take advantage of when they begin broadcasting their love courtship to a well-paying audience of aliens fascinated by human love.
An added twist: Adam has invited Chloe, her grumpy older brother (Michael Gandolfini) and their father (Josh Hamilton) to move out of their car and into his mother’s basement. He’s nice that way, and his new tenants seem nice enough too, but Adam is too young to understand how desperation can breed conditional kindness. As VuvvTube creators, while the couple can enjoy a taste of the self-determination that wealthier people used to enjoy, it quickly becomes clear that Chloe is less interested in love than money, which isn’t just a problem for Adam, but for Adam as well the Vuers at home – these aliens are into authenticity and they will sue anyone who tries to fake it for the cameras. And they start with Adam and Chloe.
Landscape with Invisible Hand is based on the fact that humans are a remarkably adaptable species while also embracing the things we cannot live without. Despite the film’s distinct lack of violence, there’s something righteous and a little unsettling about how unflinching its characters have become towards the callous but hyper-advanced alien race that could theoretically vaporize the entire planet at the touch of a button.
The Vuvv themselves are designed more for absurdity than fear (they look like something Kurt Vonnegut would sketch on a restaurant napkin), but the language they claw out by rubbing the Brillo pads together at the ends of their squishy tentacle arms, has a gruff violence – enough that the second half of the story, in which a vuvv moves in with Adam’s mother and cosplays as the “man” of the house, is smothered by too thick a layer of tension. While Haddish’s casting serves as a helpful reminder that this is meant to be fun rather than scary, the helplessness burned into this sci-fi tale of economic capitulation gradually builds into a dying sense of dread that most of his laughter stifled.
Landscape with Invisible Hand requires a little less showmanship than any of Finley’s previous efforts, which relied on a remarkable degree of control to meld conflicting tones into more than the sum of their parts, but the writer/director doesn’t get it all , which might make up for his lack of virtuosity. Here Finley often seems at the mercy of the strangeness of his material. He directs most of the scenes with a vacuum-sealed flatness, as if he doesn’t know how else to draw our attention to what’s sucking life from the film’s world, and his cast – who can only stretch their characters’ shared frustration so far – there’s little left to do but lean into the anti-drama of intergalactic domination.
Hamilton is the only one having fun pushing back as the “Eighth Grade” actor subverts his gently fatherly on-screen image by playing Chloe’s dad as the ultimate Elon Musk answer guy, ready to do or wear whatever always necessary is recognized by its new business gods. His character latches on to the vuvv with remarkable speed and silliness in the millisecond he’s given a chance, his sitcom self-abasement suggesting that “Landscape with Invisible Hand” could be written as a story about someone dealing with the heartless accepting capitalism, could cut deeper than as a story about someone looking for a way to fight back against it in their free time. This is a story Finley has told before and I look forward to seeing him tell it again in a different form. But it’s hard to buy the socioeconomic power of Adam’s artistic self-expression in a film whose director can’t stop the vuvv from erasing what makes his own work so special.
Landscape with Invisible Hand premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. MGM will bring it to theaters later this year.
https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/landscape-with-invisible-hand-movie-review-1234803758/ Landscape With Invisible Hand Review: Aliens are bluntly disrupting the economy