Among the least felicitous trends in recent American cinema are a focus on the inarticulate male wandering the lonely city, the compulsion of characters to videotape everything they see in an attempt to get at some higher truth, and the use of politically oriented radio broadcasts as a way of situating the action in a larger social context. Generation Um… is built around all three.
This graceless, intellectually bankrupt hodgepodge follows that aging embodiment of the inarticulate male, Keanu Reeves, here playing a marginal figure named John, as he wanders around Manhattan’s Lower East Side and spends time with two younger female escorts he befriends, Mia (Adelaide Clemens) and Violet (Bojana Novakovic), mostly observing in passive silence as they get drunk and high and lose their shit. John’s perambulations, which include a stop at such hotspots as Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery, where he slowly nibbles at a cupcake, suggest a battered-down, vaguely menacing conception of the LES, in keeping with the character’s presumed anomie. While these sequences have an undeniably appealing, spaced-out rhythm, they quickly grow tiresome. This becomes especially apparent as director Mark Mann spends a good third of his movie just watching John do nothing and Mia and Violet snort coke and pass out in their panties as if these observations were in any way worthy of the viewer’s attention rather than just another lame non-comment on contemporary alienation. And no, a radio broadcast talking about the dire state of the economy doesn’t qualify as sufficient context.
Still, with their occasional moments of visual flair, these scenes are far preferable to the balance of the film, in which, following a single moment of non-passivity in which John steals a camcorder from a performance-art enactment in a city park and eludes a gang of performers in hot pursuit, he begins to film everything. This leads to his quizzing Mia and Violet about their past lives and present sexuality, producing some lame revelations about the former’s father’s violent history with her mother and the latter’s stated preference for humble men, despite continually getting involved with arrogant ones. It’s all about as revelatory as a Psych 101 seminar, mostly because the levels of insight provided into the characters are exactly commensurate with any conceivable viewer’s interest in learning more about these nonentities. Mistaking half-assed questioning with profound probing, Mann proves that the generation(s) he portrays indeed have little more to say than the faltering utterance indicated by the film’s title, even when subjected to the supposed high-intensity catalyst of John’s (and Mann’s) camera.