CAPSULE: THE NOWHERE INN (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Bill Benz

FEATURING: Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Carrie Brownstein

PLOT: Annie Clark (who performs as “St. Vincent”) commissions her friend Carrie Brownstein to make a documentary about her; but when Annie’s real personality proves too boring for film, she spices things up acting more like her alter-ego, losing sight of reality in the process.

Syill from The Nowhere Inn (2021)

COMMENTS: About midway through The Nowhere Inn, it occurred to me that I hadn’t really learned anything about Annie Clark that I didn’t know before I hit “play.” Looking up her bio in Wikipedia after watching this fictionalized documentary, I found the following quote from : “Despite having toured with her for almost a year, I don’t think I know her much better, at least not on a personal level.”

This made me feel better. Clark uses this faux-confesisonal mockumentary to hide in plain sight. Her alter-ego, St. Vincent, is brash, aggressive, and sexy onstage, shredding her guitar in a skintight red vinyl minidress while an image of her vomiting turquoise paint streams on a giant video board above her. Backstage, though, her friend Brownstein (the real-life riot grrl musician turned “Portlandia” comedienne) finds it hard to assemble meaningful footage for her behind-the-scenes documentary, since all the musician wants to do in her downtime is play Scrabble or video games or sample the local radishes. Even her bandmates and roadies can’t find anything interesting to say about Clark. So, abandoning her original plan capture the artist just being herself, Brownstein prods her subject to project her personality and start acting more like St. Vincent—a challenge the singer-songwriter meets too fervently, turning herself into an insufferable cliche of an image-obsessed rock diva. The pendulum having swung too far, Brownstein falls into an artistic crisis as Clark disappears into her new persona. The movie’s last act takes a hard turn into psychological thriller territory.

So what begins as a sort-of avant garde variation on This Is Spinal Tap segues into a sort-of riff on Mulholland Drive by way of Pink Floyd: the Wall, with hints of 8 1/2 sort-of lingering around the edges.  Please observe the deliberate “sort-of”s in that formulation; I don’t mean to oversell The Nowhere Inn. The movie is far more modest and humble than those big comparisons would suggest, and even when it gets existential and meta it always remains grounded in a friendly, pleasant, and lightly satirical comedy. From Clark’s initial encounter with a limo driver who doesn’t recognize her, to a bass player who decides he’ll be Australian on camera, to a hilarious bit part by Dakota Johnson as the tabloid-friendly love interest, The Nowhere Inn undercuts charges of pretentiousness by putting funny first. Even when it’s trending towards its darkest and most unhinged moments, the movie breaks the tension with its most elaborate comic set-piece, a very obviously staged trip to meet Annie’s family in Texas. Brownstein actually carries the film with a sunny confidence that yields to awkwardness, uncertainty, and embarrassment as she realizes that the insightful documentary she has planned is not salvageable. Clark is also very good in her feature debut, essentially playing two characters, neither of whom, we suspect, is all that close to her real personality (whatever that might be). The movie’s themes of artistic integrity and the duality of performers’ public and private personae are not exactly groundbreaking, but they’re handled cleverly and with enough unpredictability and humor to keep even non-fans watching to the end. Presuming, that is, that you have a taste for unconventional presentations. As Clark tells her limo driver, “I’m not for everyone.”

Director Bill Benz is mostly known for his work on “Portlandia” and other TV comedies, which explains why, although it frequently slips into psychedelic music video mode—especially, but not exclusively, during the rock concert numbers—the movie maintains its consistent comic tone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Early on, the self-deprecating stuff takes on a studied air, and in the final stretch, the filmmakers seem to think they can shock-cut and rug-pull their way into something resembling psychological horror. The weirdness isn’t really weird enough to pull this off; it’s all the self-indulgence without much oddball pleasure.”–Jesse Hassenger, Paste (contemporaneous)

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