The most interesting thing about Nowhere Inn, the recent IFC collab between Annie Clark (better known as Grammy-winning singer-songwriter St. Vincent) and Carrie Brownstein (better known as Carrie Brownstein, the creative polymath behind Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia) is how boring it dares to be. At times it is so boring it is interesting. Most of the time it is spectacularly boring.
As a concept, “spectacular boredom” resonates with the film’s central message: celebrity isn’t compelling on a day-to-day basis, and it is tedious to try to make it such. Carrie Brownstein, the character, is asked to direct a documentary about her friend Annie Clark, but Annie Clark being Annie Clark just isn’t that exciting. So “CB,” the character, asks Clark to be “more like she is onstage,” at once showy and aloof, fragile and impervious. The hyper-fabricated persona of “St. Vincent” is performatively unraveled onscreen, only to be just as artfully refashioned in a mockumentary so meta it’s as if Jean-François Lyotard were resurrected from Père Lachaise Cemetery (though that might actually be more watchable).
If this sounds harsh, perhaps it is because expectations for Clark and Brownstein — who, as actual friends in actual life, both wrote and produced the film — are understandably high. They are each undeniably brilliant at what they do: write and make music, and, for Brownstein, write a best-selling memoir and co-create one of the most hilarious television satires of the decade. Perhaps director Bill Benz — who has previously only directed television episodes — is just as responsible for this bungling cinematic exercise, if not more. When two people who are close friends in real life make a postmodern movie about the challenges of being close friends and making a movie, it might be a good idea to have someone at the helm who has actually made a movie before.
“As you’d imagine,” wrote Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review, “the entire shebang is so naggingly self-referential, and so noisy with in-jokes, that it should, by rights, disappear up its own trombone. But there’s a saving grace: this is a funny movie.” With the exception of a few key moments in which the sheer absurdity prompted a chortle (St. Vincent’s keyboardist feigning an Australian accent; Dakota Johnson, as Clark’s girlfriend, dropping the eye-roller “she turned me gay”; Clark poking a baleful of hay with a pitchfork), I, for one, did not feel saved. The opening scene aims for humor in suggesting that Clark’s celebrity status lacks populist appeal: a limo driver (Ezra Buzzington) couriers her across the California desert, and repeatedly inquires about her degree of fame, ultimately getting his teenage son on the phone to inform her that his “son hasn’t heard of [her] either.” When beseeched to sing one of her most famous songs, Clark a capellas the first verse to “New York,” and her soft soprano f-bomb prompts the driver to abruptly roll up his privacy window, instantly disgraced. It’s supposed to be funny, but it plays into pretty common clichés, and is more than a little bit classist.
The ontological questions at stake in Nowhere Inn initially intrigue. How famous is “famous”? Why do we expect our artists to have captivating personalities or lives? How do we exact, from our heroes, a fairly compulsory vulnerability — to share daily dalliances, conflicts, trauma? “She’s impenetrable and aloof,” Clark overhears a journalist share with a companion before her show. This movie doesn’t really challenge that premise, because in its attempt to lampoon the concept of revealing the “real” Annie Clark, it ultimately reinforces how tedious she is (or at least how tedious she is as an actor — which, for all her musical genius, Clark clearly is not). A messier, less hermetic style might have offered some room to enjoy Brownstein’s pratfalls as director, but in Nowhere Inn, the viewer has nowhere in to appreciate and connect with the characters and concepts.
For a star who skirts the parasocial intimacy of our current social media climate for Kraftwerkesque automation and New Wave synth, the “real” Annie Clark that fans crave is the one performing onstage in the concert footage included in the film. If Clark is the patron saint of slickness, Brownstein is perhaps the opposite: a scrappy, ebullient Gen-Xer who is endearingly gangly even when shredding her guitar onstage. Perhaps the assumption behind this film’s production was that Brownstein’s natural warmth would defrost Clark’s chilly mien, but most of the time it seems Brownstein herself realizes otherwise, layering blazers throughout the movie as though warding off gooseflesh.
“What people fail to understand is that all of it’s me and none of it’s me,” Clark confides to “CB” about two thirds in; the faux profundity of the admission, a motif in the film, is simultaneously mocked and exalted. Whether from the glassy vista of the Hollywood Standard Hotel or ruminating backstage on tour, none of Clark’s remarks feel remotely insightful to her experience as a human, artist, or celebrity. If that is the point of the movie — that we can’t ever truly know our hallowed gentry — then an examination of why we’d even want to would seem to be in order, and Nowhere Inn simply doesn’t go there.
The movie culminates with a dream sequence of Clark passing through an endless series of red stage curtains straight out of a David Lynch film (if, again, you bled it of dark humor). She approaches her doppelganger, who, when spun around, has no face, her slick bob a kind of raven top from which Clark extracts a gold ring with “St. Vincent” inscribed. While clearly gesturing toward the surreal nature of contemporary stardom, it all ultimately feels like an art-school experiment that, as my college advisor would often say of my sophomore essays, “reaches for effects it doesn’t need.”
The film’s most redeeming moment is when Brownstein seems to admit that the entire project is a flop. “I’m in the failure era of my life,” she shares with Clark during one of their ostensive candid outtakes, shot in grainy visuals on Academy ratio. “People don’t like the shit that I’m doing … I claim to think that the artist’s role is to thrash around, make mistakes, be out of step. But when I am out of step I feel terrible … I feel down on myself. But philosophically, I’m like, ‘No, that’s how it should be.’”
I feel bad confirming that this movie is a failure, because the thought of making Carrie Brownstein feel terrible feels terrible. But if anything, its failure throws into epic relief just how excellent she’s usually been throughout her nearly three-decade career — and might relieve the sense that one must always be good, or interesting, to remain an important artist.
In other words, watch Nowhere Inn and then quickly chase with St. Vincent’s Masseduction or Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One, or Brownstein’s moving memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. Or skip it altogether.
Nowhere Inn is currently in theaters.