When his mother dies after a long illness, Mercer White (Lou Taylor Pucci) steals a beat-up old Volvo from a carwash and takes off on the great American hipster road trip. Mercer is in search of his long-lost, half-Mexican half-brother, Arlen, whom he hasn’t seen in years, but in true road movie tradition, he is actually in search of himself.
It’s “Huckleberry Finn” that inspires this innocent, sensitive kid to take off, which is fitting, as it calls to mind Twain’s warning in the novel: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Also lucky: that the owner of the car turns out to be a searcher too. The impishly cute, slightly older Kate (Zooey Deschanel) calls her cellphone to check in with Mercer about his thoughts on fate and coincidence and the meaning of life.
This -- and admittedly, it’s early -- is where “The Go-Getter” went and lost me, though not entirely. Its contrivances are many and immoderate, and there’s something self-consciously stilted and performative about the dialogue (you never get the sense that anybody is being sincere, even when they’re supposed to be at their most sincere), but “The Go-Getter,” directed by Martin Hynes, does have its slight, passing charms.
Lazy, digressive shots of minor characters playing with their dogs in fields or spinning pots in an Oregon commune have a gorgeous summertime feel, thanks in large part to Byron Shah’s dappled cinematography. And just when the lonesome cowboy on the open road stuff gets to be too much, along comes a lonesome liquor wholesaler (Bill Duke) to poke a hole in the over-inflated legend.
But the self-conscious myth-making persists, as Mercer travels from innocence to experience. The mysterious Arlen, he soon discovers, is a charming ne’er-do-well who has left a trail of angry people in his wake. Not that they -- the self-absorbed potting hippies, the druggie pet shop employees, the home pornographer calling himself Sergio Leone -- are much better.
Jena Malone plays the especially awful Joely, a girl Mercer knew in middle school, who has since moved to Nevada and become a wretched little desert snipe who gives Mercer his first taste of sex and drugs and casual betrayal. Kate’s Zen equilibrium can withstand the loss of her car and her phone but not the mention of another girl. In no time, she’s tracking Mercer down to retrieve her belongings and put an end to their Salingerian idyll.
Kate is the kind of girl who orders a Big Mac without the beef patties, which is to say the kind of girl only an arty, alienated person younger than 17 finds attractive or even plausible. Same, come to think of it, goes for a movie like “The Go-Getter,” which despite flashes of genuine emotion eventually succumbs to its own tweeness. There are moments of beauty here, but not enough to make up for the mannered dialogue and hamstrung performances. Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative won’t be prosecuted, but they’ll probably be disappointed.
“The Go-Getter.” MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and drug use. Running time: 1 hour and 33 minutes. Playing at the Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica and the Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine.
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