Sex sells. That’s the deceptively elementary premise behind Syrup, Aram Rappoport’s frenetic and exceedingly disjointed adaptation of the same-named novel by Max Barry. The movie sets its sights on the high-powered, smoke-and-mirrors world of marketing, aiming to dissect how ruthlessly corporations manipulate the minds of everyday consumers like me and you. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, Syrup suffers from something a dialogue-driven satire of its kind absolutely cannot afford to have: a script that’s consistently far less clever than it thinks it is.
I had high hopes for Syrup from the get-go. The source material was a deliciously dark attack on the advertising biz equipped with enough caustic dialogue to eat through steel, and Barry co-wrote the screenplay with Rappaport. Additionally, the film adaptation recruited a sexy young cast that should have been ideal for helping the book’s razor-edged commentary go down smoothly. Strangely, Syrup is, like the products its protagonists market, as outwardly attractive as it is internally inert.
Shiloh Fernandez stars as Scat, a young marketing major determined to make it big in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate suits and artificial personalities. When he comes up with a million-dollar idea, for a sleek new soda called (no joke) Fukk, Scat suddenly gets his shot at success. Rearing to make an impression, Scat meets with a gorgeous, inscrutable marketing executive known only as Six (Amber Heard). However, just as quickly as he arrived, Scat finds himself back out on the street when his silent roommate Sneaky Pete (Kellan Lutz) screws him and then Six over in rapid succession. Teaming up with Six, Scat plots to work his way back up to the top.
Out of the cast, only Heard makes a real impression, infusing Six with a compulsively watchable blend of bombshell sex appeal and detached, icy mystique. Part of the character’s allure is the central question of whether anything about Six is real; as Scat tells us, Six “sells herself better than anyone I’ve ever met.” Even her name is a coy image enhancer because of its aural closeness to sex. Six is everything that Scat covets but, like the happiness that the two promise in their products, she’s essentially an illusion. Heard’s admittedly limited acting range meshes surprisingly well with Six’s obsession with image and cold professionalism, and Syrup‘s best twist is how it subverts expectations with her character, particularly during the film’s decidedly anti-Hollywood finale. Barry and Rappaport are much smarter with Six and her dialogue that they are with anything else in the film.
Fernandez, on the other hand, is barely passable. He’s a painfully stiff actor and, as a leading man, he’s also inescapably irritating. Though we’re meant to root for him to hit it big, then for him to win over Six, Fernandez always seems half-asleep (that is, whenever he isn’t brushing strategically loose strands of hair out of his eyes with a frequency that should make Kristen Stewart blush). Fernandez’s one-note performance completely fails to bring out the deeply ironic core of an ambitious up-and-comer seduced then discarded by the same marketing industry he wanted to rule.
Though Syrup was billed as a film with four stars, neither Lutz and Brittany Snow ever get an opportunity to make even the slightest expression. Lutz’s character, ostensibly the film’s main antagonist, only speaks in one scene and even then offers minimal insight into his character’s role in the story. Sneaky Pete, as he’s known, comes across as a cardboard cut-out more than a person, unforeseen collateral damage after too many cuts in the editing room. His sidekick Three (Snow) is also more of an image than an actual person. In her few scenes, the writers mistake raw sexuality for character development. The writers’ failure to develop their side actors is more disappointing for Snow than Lutz, as the actress previously showcased considerable acting chops in The Vicious Kind and, more recently, Pitch Perfect.
Syrup has an intriguing, high-concept premise, but muddled execution prevents it from ever getting to the heart of what made Barry’s novel so successful. The film zips from scene to scene, throwing corporate espionage, sexual tension, a romantic subplot and fourth wall-breaking narration at the audience without setting aside enough time to make any of those story features stick. At multiple times, the film becomes completely incomprehensible, mostly thanks to dense dialogue and woefully inadequate transitions. As a result, Syrup is often exhausting and heavy-handed instead of intelligent and invigorating.
What makes the film borderline-unwatchable, however, is a pervasive sense of smug superiority to the proceedings. Scat thinks a lot of himself and makes sure to share his faux-brilliant views on business with the audience at multiple points throughout the film. It’s not just him. As Fukk and, later, KoK energy drinks flood the market, Barry and Rappaport expect us to buy into the idea that Syrup‘s characters are superhuman enough to market a product in such a way that it reduces average Americans to their most savage instincts. However, the script’s inconsistency means that Scat often fluctuates between canny marketing lingo and dunderheaded exclamations about his relationship with Six. For a high-concept satire, Syrup is often remarkably mindless.
Ironically, Syrup works a lot better as an advertisement for high-end fashions than as a movie. Six’s wardrobe choices are an instrumental part of her character, while the most noteworthy thing about Scat is his snappy dress sense. Syrup‘s characters are essentially images themselves, reflecting the success and confidence they desire back at everyone around them, and while that is part of the point that Barry is trying to make, it doesn’t make for a very compelling film. Syrup‘s ideas about image projection and the consumer’s greed for reputation are very intriguing, but the film leans on the weak chemistry of its actors instead of delving into the subject matter at hand. By perpetually dancing around the concept of image in its various forms, Syrup fails to utilize the strongest card in its deck.
Syrup leaves an extremely bitter taste in the mouth, to be sure, but it’s one that comes from the film’s unjustified narcissism and frenzied incoherence much more than any sort of smartly cynical message about American consumer culture.
A great performance from Amber Heard can't save Syrup from its half-baked, sluggish script and obnoxious complacency.