“Everyone has phases,” says Zoe (Uma Thurman) in Ceremony, and for his debut feature, writer-director Max Winkler is clearly going through his Wes Anderson one. A barefaced rehash of Rushmore with bits and pieces of Bottle Rocket thrown in for good measure, this exasperatingly precious film revolves around Sam (Michael Angarano), a 23-year-old with a middle-aged man’s mustache, a habit of saying faux-WASPy things like “silly goose” and “drinkies,” and an amateur career as an author and illustrator of kids-lit stories that reflect his real-world infatuation with older beauty Zoe. Introduced reading one such lousy tale to a library audience of one, Sam is immediately established as a wannabe-erudite smarty-pants in the Max Fisher mold, albeit without the charm or wit. No sooner has he finished reading aloud than Sam is driving to the country with his best friend Marshall (Reece Thompson), a neurotic who hasn’t left the house in a year because of trauma from a mugging, and who thinks that this trip is Sam’s attempt to reconnect, rather than—as soon becomes clear—an excuse to crash the beachside wedding of Zoe to pompous nature documentarian Whit (Lee Pace).
From his grown-up expressions and idiosyncratic clothes (most twee: a red corduroy suit), to his cocksure certainty that he can win back Zoe, whose forthcoming marriage is predicated less on love than a need for comfort and security, Sam is an unctuous little twerp. As such, he’s thoroughly unbelievable as someone over whom the older, wiser, and more attractive Zoe would be smitten. That the plot is founded on this May-December amour, whose origins are only hazily discussed in hindsight, immediately demolishes its credibility. Still, even if one could accept Thurman’s romantic interest in Angarano, Winkler’s film is relegated to mere second-hand regurgitation by its incessant aping of Anderson—not just the ‘60s music and quirky incidents (a three-legged race!), but also the inclusion of a “sad maid” who doesn’t speak any English and draws the affectionate attention of Marshall (shades of Bottle Rocket‘s Inez), as well as Sam’s ultimate realization that his older-woman desire are the stuff of juvenile fantasy. Thurman is as nuanced as her preposterous role allows, which isn’t much; surrounded by old-money caricatures and pursued by an obnoxious twentysomething egotist, she mainly seems desperate for escape, which is just about the only relatable emotion conveyed by this pleased-with-itself indie.