Of all the vaguely philosophical, calculatedly left-of-center dialogue that peppers Miranda July’s The Future, no line is more telling than the writer/director/star’s late-film declaration, in the guise of her character Sophie, that “I’m saying okay to nothing.” A comedy of overwhelming depressiveness, July’s movie—despite its share of magical-realist touches and its hint that, at least for cats, an afterlife may exist—verges on the resignedly nihilistic. A combination of morbid self-absorption and playful quirk, The Future manages to botch both aspects, mostly because its characters’ existential despair seems to express itself not in any recognizable modes of human behavior, but in actions and utterances that unfold like autistic conceits hatched from the hermetic world of July’s brain.
The depressive characters in question are Sophie and her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater), working shit jobs (he’s a remote computer tech, she teaches dance lessons to kids) while living in a small Los Angeles apartment. The pair decides to adopt a cat with renal failure, a project necessitating round-the-clock care, but they’re given a 30-day reprieve by the vet who tells them the feline has to spend a month in the hospital before they can pick him up. With their last weeks of freedom dwindling away, Jason and Sophie quit their jobs, embark on new adventures, and express via a very specific brand of mannered, offbeat dialogue their dissatisfactions, their sense of impending middle age, and their fears of having accomplished nothing in life.
While Jason stumbles into a new gig selling trees door to door, Sophie mopes at home, hatching vague ideas of recording a series of odd gyrations (which she calls “dances”) for YouTube consumption. When Jason wanders in after his first day at his new job, Sophie all but accuses him of having had “fulfilling experiences.” Fulfilling experiences are most certainly what our pair is after, but such occurrences are difficult when a person can’t bring herself to leave the house. Eventually, Sophie does make it out, beginning an affair with an older businessman, the result of an almost random telephone call, while Jason sets his work aside to spend his days with his own newly formed acquaintance, an elderly man given to writing dirty poems and dispensing fatherly advice.
Although filled throughout with small, oddball touches of varying degrees of palatability (individual mileage will vary), the film saves its grandest conceit for the midway point. With Sophie on the verge of confessing her affair, Jason suddenly stops time, a maneuver it turns out only applies to him; the rest of the world continues on in a sort of parallel plane. Cutting between Sophie’s vaguely masochistic relationship with her new lover and Jason living in his alternate world, where he converses with a talking moon who speaks in the voice of his elderly friend, the film spins off into even more fanciful territory, proving that flights-of-whimsical fantasy are often no more artistically productive than sequences of domestic non-communication.
And indeed, an early “realist” scene in which Sophie dances bizarrely around the apartment explaining to her boyfriend that President Obama has declared that she’s free to leave her job seems as pointlessly whimsical as a later sequence in which a young girl buries herself up to her neck in the backyard where she plans to spend the night, only to quickly come running into her house in tears. The first of these scenes plays as little more than an excuse for July to perform her patented combination of odd physical behavior and offbeat speechifying delivered in a melancholy deadpan. The later sequence at least has the merit of offering an objective correlative (such as it is) for Sophie’s feelings of depression, in this case displaced onto another character. But even if we accept this thin thematic justification, the burial still feels like one more half-baked conceit thrown into a stew that already contains considerably more gristle than meat.
Of course, not all the film’s offbeat ideas are so stilted; a scene where a time-stuck Jason wanders through the frozen downtown traffic toward a moon-lit beach has its own brand of loveliness. Nor does the film’s misanthropy feel like a mere pose; this is one film that is depressive through and through. Even a series of scenes involving a talking cat who relates his empirically deduced observations on life and loneliness reeks of the melancholy of never-to-be-fulfilled longing. But by the time Jason declares to one of his door-to-door clients that we’re past the tipping point of global warming and, indicating the world around him, exclaims, “It’s probably too late for all of this anyway,” the film’s resignation to a hopeless existential despair becomes unbearable. What can humans ultimately do in this doomed world in which they have only the barest chance at happiness and even the ability to stop time can’t change anything? In the end, it’s the film’s relentless shoulder-shrugging pessimism more than its misguided quirk that sinks the project.