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It took me some time to warm up to Max Winkler's Ceremony, a jaunty comedy starring the familiar cinematic figure of a confident young man who's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Though rising star Michael Angarano is energetic and pretty remarkable as the pretentious and persuasive Sam Davis, for the first half hour of the movie, to put it frankly, I couldn't stand the guy. Like Max Fischer without the talent, or Tony Curtis's Some Like It Hot character with zero sexual appeal, Sam is a fast-talker with nothing to say, belittling his one friend in the world Marshall (Reece Thompson) and deciding to crash the wedding of older ex-flame Zoe (Uma Thurman) because his narcissistic brain can't compute that she'd really want to be rid of him.
Yes, it's obvious that Winkler is setting this character up for a spectacular reckoning, and with his orange suit and ludicrous ideas for children's book, Sam is never really presented as a hero. But still, you've got to spend 90 minutes putting up with this guy, and as Sam leads us into Zoe's spectacular Long Island shore wedding, we want nothing more than to ditch him and hang on to one of the more interesting, less fundamentally irritating party guests. It's worth sticking it out, though, as Ceremony improves markedly as it goes on, transforming into a surprisingly mature story about friendship and growing up. After a while even Angarano's manic performance started to grow on me, settling in nicely next to strong supporting performances from Thompson, Lee Pace as the groom-to-be and Jake Johnson as a loutish brother-in-law.
Even Thurman seems less like the unattainable Amazon goddess than an unusually pretty everywoman, fitting right into a wild party scene early in the film and utterly believable as a woman who would fall for an obnoxious TV explorer (Pace) and Angarano's puffed-chest baby boy. It's the kind of movie in which a group of people arrive at a faraway location and spend the weekend just talking to each other and getting into trouble, so there's not much to tell you about what happens between when Sam and Marshall arrive and the closing credits, but it becomes a pleasure just to watch these characters interact on the sand, spouting out Winkler's clever dialogue and developing into believable, likable comedic characters.
Without ever being terribly original or split-your-side funny, Ceremony is still a great pleasure to watch, and a terrific first feature from Winkler, who has made shorts and webseries for several years now. The son of Henry Winkler, Max is clearly well-connected enough to use this movie as a springboard to something bigger; maybe now that he's gotten the coming-of-age story out of his system, he can use all that promise and skill to tell a story that feels a little fresher.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.