What a smug-a-thon.
Despite a brave and edgy performance by Viggo Mortensen and some shining moments of sharp comedy and true emotion, writer-director Matt Ross’ hippie fantasy “Captain Fantastic” suffers from terminal self-satisfaction, not to mention one of the more irritating final scenes of any film this year.
In the tradition of “The Mosquito Coast” and “Running on Empty” (and going back further, “Swiss Family Robinson”), “Captain Fantastic” is all about a family that has gone off the grid in a big way and is now living off the land, isolated from the modern world and all its evil entrapment. (The kids are so isolated that when they see overweight people, they wonder what’s wrong with them.)
Mortensen’s Ben is a handsome, brilliant, resourceful and loving father — but he’s also as didactic and single-minded as a boot camp sergeant or even a budding cult leader. Ben’s six children are home-schooled — well, woods-schooled, seeing as how they live deep in the Pacific Northwest — and their father is a master instructor, teaching them to read and appreciate the classics, learn multiple languages, play instruments and engage in enlightened conversation about socialism and capitalism and the exploitation of the common man around the ol’ fire pit at night.
Oh yeah, and each eventually must learn how to hunt and kill deer and other prey. You know, for dinner.
Ross seems to be painting a portrait of Utopia, but Ben is so intense and the kids are trained to be such robotic parrots, blurting out memorized answers in a way clearly intended to please their father and only rarely questioning his authority, it feels more like the children are being imprisoned in the wilderness and robbed of the opportunity to get to know the world, to make friends, to develop a first crush, to fall in love.
I mean, what’s the plan here Ben? You gonna keep your six kids in the woods forever, until you die and they’re middle-aged? Unless they meet another family of societal drop-outs, are they not to experience love (or even lust) and have families of their own? Because if you release them into the conventional world you so despise, they’ll be eaten alive, as they’ve had NO preparation for the kind of life.
As for the children’s mother, Leslie: She’s bipolar and suicidal, and she’s in the hospital, and she might not be coming back. For all of Ben’s talk about how he and Leslie had an all-consuming love for one another and a mutual passion for flipping the bird to the real world and creating their own existence far from the concrete walls and the internet and cell phones and selfishness and corporate greed, it appears Leslie was wavering on the plan and considering a move back home so she could reconnect with life and deal with her condition.
Leslie kills herself, and Ben delivers the news to his children in blunt, almost cruel fashion. The more we know this guy, the less we like him and the less we buy his bull-bleep. We find ourselves rooting for the kids to wise up to his act.
Worried that Leslie’s bourgeois parents won’t honor Leslie’s wish to be cremated with her ashes literally flushed down a toilet, Ben gathers the kids and fires up the family van for a road trip. Along the way, they steal goods from a grocery store (in a well-choreographed maneuver indicating they’ve done this before), and they stay overnight with Ben’s sister and her husband (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, both excellent) and their two meathead, video-game-loving sons, who regard their cousins as dirty freaks who live in the woods.
Frank Langella is perfectly cast as Leslie’s father, a wealthy Arizona businessman who blames Ben for his beloved daughter’s death and doesn’t want Ben at the traditional church funeral. (Ann Dowd is wonderful as Leslie’s mother, who’s more forgiving toward Ben, in large part because he has brought her six grandchildren out of the woods, and she’s grateful for the chance to hold them and tell them they’re loved. Dowd is a treasure in just about every role she plays.)
To Ross’ credit, the wealthy parents with their environmentally incorrect mansion on a golf course aren’t portrayed as clueless capitalistic pigs. They have legitimate concerns about the safety and the future of their grandchildren — concerns even Ben has to admit he might not be equipped to handle.
But just when “Captain Fantastic” seems to be pulling the curtain back on Ben’s irresponsible, hypocritical game plan, things take a ridiculous and off-putting turn, with the Smug-0-Meter pinning the needle. A finale intended to be soaring, emotionally involving and lovely felt cloying and self-satisfied and implausible. I wanted to shout at the screen, “What next, Captain Fantastic?”
Cuz I’m thinking he didn’t have an answer.
Bleecker Street presents a film written and directed by Matt Ross. Running time: 119 minutes. Rated R (for language and brief graphic nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.