Generation Um… is one of those movies that forces the audience to come to their own conclusion about what they have witnessed, and it does its best not to manipulate or force them to think in a certain way. This is a very interesting method of filmmaking that can produce fascinating results, but it fails here because the three main characters are not terribly interesting and writer/director Mark Mann only touches at the surface of where they are going. Despite some strong performances, Generation Um… feels like a frustratingly missed opportunity.
Keanu Reeves, who has been missing in action for a while, stars as John, a man who finds that he’s starting to get too old for the trendy New York neighborhood he lives in, and he wanders around the city aimlessly with no clue of where his life is going. His current job has him working as a driver for an escort service, and the two women he drives around town, Violet (Bojana Novakovic) and Mia (Adelaide Clemens), are the closest things he has to friends. Granted, they are not always nice to him (Violet shows no hesitation in calling him stupid), but he is not able to connect with anyone else in this movie the way he does with them.
One day while watching an impromptu dance being performed in a park, John impulsively steals a video camera (a camcorder to be specific) and ends up using it to capture the sights and sounds of New York as he sees them. But then he takes things a step further and turns the camera on Violet and Mia, and they both begin to reveal things about themselves that they otherwise wouldn’t. From there, the women attempt to outdo each other with their opinions and the secrets they have to share.
Throughout the film I kept waiting for these three characters to have some sort of revelation. While they look to be having fun on the surface (John not so much), they are clearly lost in a world of drugs and self-absorption that you want to see them dig their way out of. The problem is that John, Violet and Mia are not all that interesting as characters as they are shallow and have little depth to them. It would be easy to dismiss them as being unlikable, but characters do not need to be likable for a movie to work. They just have to be interesting and give you more than enough of a reason to follow them into their own personal hell.
When the camera does get introduced into Generation Um…, the movie does become a bit more interesting as it looks to get under these characters’ skin to see what makes them tick. There’s a great moment where John and Violet, after an uncomfortable moment, embrace for the longest hug in recent motion picture history. It hints at the intimacy they are missing in their lives and the deep connection with others they yearn for but which they have long since denied to themselves.
You have to give a lot of credit to the actors as they inhabit their characters fully and without any reservations. Novakovic doesn’t try to make Violet an easy person to like, and she revels in portraying Violet as an unabashed entertainer who never has much of an audience to perform to. Clemens is even better as Mia as she creates a mysterious character we desperately want to know more about. As for Reeves, he is well cast as John in that he does look like out of place in the town his character inhabits, and his sullen look and disposition speaks many words about where John is in life. Many still carp about Reeves’ talents, but he’s still a better actor than many give him credit for.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the actors, Generation Um… really only scratches the surface of these peoples’ lives, and it gets to where you want the movie to just end already. It’s hard to get excited about any of the characters, and we come to pity them more than we could ever empathize with them. While we want to see John, Violet and Mia snap out of their aimless existences and work towards a more positive future, we find ourselves not caring if they ever do by the movie’s end.
Generation Um… marks the feature film directing debut of American artist Mark Mann, and he specializes in photographic art works that create an uneasy tension between truth and fiction. While he does a good job in capturing the alienation and loneliness many people experience in a big city, he depends far too much on the audience to fill in the missing blanks. While he wants us to think about what we would do if we were these characters, he doesn’t give us enough subtext to chew on or think about, and he could have gone much, much deeper with the story.
Some might find Generation Um… interesting as an art film that deals with how people find themselves trapped in a rudderless existence, but others will find it a tedious experience that is not worth repeating.