Roger Ebert famously said, “No good movie is too long. No bad movie is short enough.” By that standard, Wander Darkly is an excruciating 90 minutes. Its characters are unlikable, its story is clichéd, and its emotional beats are pathetic. There is a supernatural element to the film, and since it depicts the highs and lows of a romantic relationship, the easiest comparison is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But at least Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman had the good sense to create flawed, interesting characters who are worth caring about. Tara Miele, who wrote and directed this film, fails to achieve that baseline.
Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are a couple living in Los Angeles. They are not married, but they have a newborn. After a tense evening, they are in a car accident. The exact outcome of the car accident is unclear: Perhaps they survived, perhaps they both died, or perhaps they are in a limbo state where they hallucinate about their shared past. Either way, Miele focuses on Adrienne and how she reels after the accident. Sometimes she is aware she is reliving the past, which confuses her, while at other times, she is caught up in the moment. This new reality is an opportunity for her to reflect on her time with Matteo.
The biggest problem, one that Miele never overcomes, is that Matteo and Adrienne do not have distinct personalities. We have little reason to care about their relationship, except for the fact that the movie is about them. Luna is one of the most charming actors in the industry, and it takes actual work to make him this boring. Wander Darkly is effectively a series of flashbacks, and the only remarkable thing about the early stage of their relationship is the dearth of chemistry. What should be their honeymoon period looks like two visibly bored actors going through the motions.
One underlying question throughout the film is the nature of Adrienne’s existence. Are we seeing her dreams or some sort of purgatory? Who is alive, and what level of cognition do they finally have? The film ultimately resolves this issue, although it has little dramatic weight. There are no rules to this version of the afterlife (or whatever), except that the film relentlessly strives for maximum poignancy. Some scenes have a dramatic edge—character actor Beth Grant adds a strain of credibility as Adrienne’s mother—although they do not have much of an emotional effect. When the couple openly questions why they even bother staying together, the audience should not wonder the same thing.
There is no reason this premise cannot work. If handled properly, romance can capture our imaginations and tug at our emotions. What happens here, though, is absent any sense of specificity. We do not know who these people are, which means we cannot decide whether they are a worthwhile fit. Wander Darkly is mostly tedious, at least until its final moments, and then it gets downright offensive. Over imagery of dolphins and Adrienne on a boat, a recognizable pop song plays on the soundtrack. The tune is a cloying, downbeat cover of “Don’t Save Me” by HAIM. The cover drains the song of its considerable charm, to the point that it becomes an affront to good taste. That Miele thinks this schlock could move an audience is an insult to our intelligence and our hearts.
Wander Darkly is available to stream Friday on demand.