'How to Talk to Girls at Parties': Neil Gaiman adaptation works in misfits and starts
“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a short story by Neil Gaiman in which two teenage South London boys stumble upon a strange party thrown by aliens manifest as attractive human females. Par for the Gaiman course, it’s charming, shot through with an earnest innocence ripe for corruption; the narrator, named Enn, is so sweetly and savagely hormonal, he doesn’t recognize the women’s blatantly obvious strangeness, and awkwardly plows ahead with his desperate attempts to get closer than arm’s length from a creature, any creature, of the opposite sex.
As it must, the film significantly expands upon the 5,000-word source material, adding rectal probing, a dash of John Waters sleaze and a distinct “Zardoz” vibe to its weird, fetishy textural arsenal. It functions in fits and starts, and seems all too self-aware of its own attempts at cultural subversion, and yes, before we get too far along here, I indeed invoked “Zardoz,” the 1974 sci-fi oddity in which Sean Connery plays a well-armed base-urges homunculus-type in a red, diaper-like loin covering who stumbles upon a society of humans enjoying a post-sex existence of immortality. It’s fascinating and terrible. The existence and the movie, I mean.
The comparison diminishes “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” but the parallels, which I sadly arrived upon after much strenuous thought and analysis - “Zardoz” exists in the deepest crevasses of the mind - are unavoidable. Alex Sharp plays Enn, and his star-crossed lover is Elle Fanning’s Zan, who speaks in vague weirdnesses, all but stating outright that she’s a celestial entity manifest in human form. She and her kind may be the souls of stars, a conclusion I jump to with great uncertainty, so an assertion this is not.
Enn meets Zan at a strange party he and his punker buddies, Vic (AJ Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence), believe is a secret after-party populated by exchange students, many of them clad in the kind of rubber dresses and bodysuits that addle a teenage boy’s mind. Zan is the rebel in her sect, visiting Earth for an ill-defined set of rituals, which are overexplained, yet underconceptualized, mired in the type of opaque, stiffly delivered dialogue - “alien” in the ESL, take-me-to-your-leader, “Plan 9” sense - that stops a film dead in its tracks.
The core love story is sweet and funny thanks to Sharp and Fanning’s sincere performances, which show an effortlessness rarely present in the script (in mixed company, she refers plainly to their fooling around as “incomplete sexual activity,” one of the movie’s less wrought attempts at comedy). Zan wants to understand “the punk,” and so asks Enn to immerse her in the subculture: “I once harmonized with a brown dwarf,” she states, a literalist declaration that can be taken two entirely different ways. The local scene is led by Queen Boadicea, a band manager and concert promoter and aging punk lifer played by Nicole Kidman with a sneer, extreme eye makeup and a Siouxsie Sioux fright wig; she’s a hoot, but should be more of a hoot, especially when leading her loyal clan of punkers on a crusade to help Zan overcome the oppression of tradition.
Somewhere here is a more functional high-concept genre-blending comedy, but director and co-scripter John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Shortbus”) appears to be questing for cult notoriety instead of coherent, well-paced storytelling. I admired the film at times, but rarely enjoyed it - odd, considering the concept, which is over the top and off the wall and ceilingless, but unfocused and klutzy in its pacing. It takes a deft hand to blend gobby punk-rock nostalgia with extrasensual extraterrestrials, and Mitchell struggles with the intangibles in spite of his colorful visual flair. The movie is certainly far better than an unsolicited rectal probing, which is more than I can say for “Zardoz.”
‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’
MPAA rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity
Cast: Alex Sharp, Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Run time: 102 minutes