The first generation to be labeled with a letter suffered through some serious metaphysical shit in the '90s (if you doubt this, try listening to the period-specific music--emphasis on try), but now this societal clusterfuck is searching for antidotes to its own pop-culture poison. Evidence of a renewed hope abounds, from evolved Charlie's Angels to female Jedi, Prince being Princely again to Molly Ringwald and Winona Ryder being amalgamated into Christina Ricci. Looking around, it would seem that everything doesn't have to be ugly and stupid anymore. The latest case in point is a sweet, savvy little sci-fi time capsule called CQ. Written and directed by Roman Coppola--whose previous credits include zany music videos for the likes of the Presidents of the United States of America--it's a feel-good movie for people tired of paying to feel bad. Bring it on.
Rather than peppering this review with obnoxious asides about the latest Star Wars episode, it's a pleasure to welcome a fresh sci-fi movie about a young hero's struggle for identity and purpose. This time, long ago and far, far away translates to a galaxy known as Paris, circa 1969. There, a young, self-obsessed American filmmaker named Paul (Jeremy Davies, reprising his awkward tics from The Million Dollar Hotel) embarks on an adventure beyond his imagining. Although he works as an editor, scoping the odd flash of nudity on his flatbed, his true passion is filming himself talking about himself. His alternately patient and presumptuous French girlfriend Marlene (Élodie Bouchez, Tango) weighs in: "Just because you film every possible thing in your life does not mean you'll understand yourself any better...but I'll tell you." Of course, the know-it-all Yank can no more absorb her know-it-all French perspective than eat Gauloises for breakfast, so something's gotta give.
Life takes a thrilling, near-nauseating turn for Paul when he is abruptly promoted to director of Codename: Dragonfly, the kitschy sci-fi extravaganza he's been editing. The project has been confounding its uppity producer (Giancarlo Giannini) and his assistant (Massimo Ghini). First, revolution-mad auteur Andrezej (a superbly rabid Gérard Depardieu) is sacked for his compromising positions with the film's star, a go-go-booted hottie named Valentine (Angela Lindvall) whose ultimate wish is to converse with her cat. (Appropriate, as she's as much a sex kitten as Barbarella, but doesn't get quite as close to Duran Duran's "orgasmatron," alas.) A nasty, pretentious American named Felix DeMarco (Jason Schwartzman) is called aboard to helm, only to suffer an untimely accident. Without warning, Paul must rescue the careering picture--and cook up a comprehensible ending.
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CQ might have dissolved into a ghastly mash of secondhand nostalgia and precious angst if it weren't for Coppola's apparent hots for the material. As it stands, he has his gateau and eats it, too, traipsing through glammy period Euro-trash and blurring it with increasingly tangible episodes of the slick sci-fi movie. The project is flashier and sports far fewer exposed nerves than his sister Sofia's debut effort, The Virgin Suicides--it's much more a gee-whiz "oh, boy" movie: tits and laser guns--but it's consistently engaging and impeccably lensed (by Robert D. Yeoman, Dogma). Also, admirably, for all the nepotism involved (his father executive produced, cousin Schwartzman stars, family friend Dean Stockwell turns up), it's Coppola's baby, and his affection makes it one of the most unusual and enjoyable films this year.
If the movie can be slighted, it's for occasional overdoses of cutesiness. Paul's father is a busybody with only enough time to meet his son briefly at the airport, and then primarily to recount a dream he's had of Vietnam. There's also a clichéd hippie, not unlike the one who tried to seduce Annie Hall's foot. And the climactic confrontation between Paul and the radical Andrezej in an underground tunnel doesn't sizzle at all; instead it looks like two hipsters feigning an argument.
On almost all other counts, the movie flies high. Coppola frames Paul in a mirror like a personification of Janus (the god, or Bergman's distributor?), showcases his Hammer-envy (a hilarious shoot for a satanic virgin vampire picture) and offers a respectable nod to Barbarella (by casting John Phillip Law). The poppy score by Mellow steals liberally--and well--from the Beatles, the locations (in Luxembourg, France and Italy) tinge most every scene with romance, and Paul's evolution from interviewing himself to fielding questions from insane journalists is satisfying indeed.
What's most pleasing about CQ--its title meaning "seek you," culled from Morse code--is its sense of lascivious freedom. It's the summer of love gently re-envisioned by and for a generation for whom that elusive season is long overdue. This is good. Seek on, noble Roman, that ye may continue to find.