This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com
The Vanishing of Sidney Hall is a mystery that will indeed make you scratch your head: Why make this film? Why tell this story? What were the members of such a talented cast thinking when each received this script?
The titular absconder, Sidney Hall (Logan Lerman), is a writer of such remarkable talent he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, A Suburban Tragedy, which he began writing when he was still in high school. The film toggles back and forth between different periods in Sidney’s life: as a high-schooler experiencing the moments that would inform his opus; as a literary “it boy” with a crumbling marriage; and as a Unabomber-looking vagrant traveling cross-country. Perhaps the strongest element of the film is director and co-writer Shawn Christensen’s ability to switch between these time periods without, for the most part, losing or confusing us as to which Sidney and at what age we are watching. Actually, hair department head Andrea Grande-Capone should be acknowledged. Sidney’s changing locks provide us with the best visual cues.
In the present action, the vagrant Sidney is pursued by a mysterious Researcher (Kyle Chandler). Through flashbacks, we come to understand how and why Sidney “vanished,” before moving forward with the Researcher and his desire to find the missing author.
There certainly is enough in the way of plot to keep the viewer engaged with the story, not because the story is engaging, but because the human urge to solve a riddle once proposed is very real. For a mystery and for a narrative that steams by on plot alone, The Vanishing of Sidney Hall is well, even expertly, paced.
But beneath the surface of the plot there is hardly a thing—an idea, an emotion, to say nothing of a person—there. The characters are as stock as they come: the self-involved writer, the waifish love interest (Elle Fanning), the formerly knocked-up prom queen gone to seed (Michelle Monaghan, as Sidney’s mother), and the jerky jock who is only a jerk because he has issues (Blake Jenner). There is much that can be done with stock types, much that can be subverted or illuminated or deepened. But this is not the case with Sidney Hall, which does not bother to take time away from its plot to find, plumb or faintly gesture towards contradictions in, or multiple facets to, its characters. With the exception of the Researcher, the only one whose identity interests (and around whom the film should have been built), they begin and they remain clichéd.
As does a good deal of the dialogue, which is at bizarre odds with its considerable talk about the “truth,” “honesty” and “rawness” in Sidney’s work. But all of this, the cardboard characters, the exceedingly broad language, is of little consequence when compared with the distasteful turn the film takes towards its conclusion. We come at last to understand the tragedy that informed Sidney’s novel, and it’s a doozy, a traumatic trump card flung out of left field. We are given no prior indications or clues concerning its distressing nature. And then we see what happened with Sidney’s marriage. Both of these instances are deeply traumatic, the latter—which smacks of soap opera—more so than the former, but an emotional understanding of both we do not get, we are not allowed to get, because the “mystery” plot must chug forward. It is simply bad melodrama. There is a sense of insouciant superficiality to the endeavor that makes one want to grab for a bar of soap with which to scrub away its residue.
At the end of it all, all mysteries have been resolved, but to what end? What have we learned, and what have we been made to feel? Most important of all: What were we supposed to have learned or felt? Beyond stoking the interest that a mystery elicits for its own sake, what was the point? This is not a popcorn flick that seeks only to entertain. It takes itself far too seriously for such fun.
I could see how a script with its page-turning storyline might appeal. Especially if it’s well-formatted, hits its plot points, is easy to visualize, doesn’t look too expensive. I truly do not know what the creative impetus behind the film may have been, but I would rather a messy, formless thing that attempts an emotional understanding, even if it fails, than this sleek and hollow vehicle for story alone.