When the lights came up at the conclusion of last night’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere of In Your Eyes, and the cast and key creatives dutifully shuffled up to the front for the compulsory post-movie Q&A, one key collaborator was noticeably absent — “busy making a little micro-budget superhero film,” as producer Michael Roiff noted. That film is the new Avengers movie; the missing face was that of Joss Whedon, In Your Eyes’ executive producer and screenwriter. But that face quickly appeared on the screen with an apology (“I wish I could be there with you, but I’m here with me instead”) and an announcement: April 20 not only marked the film’s premiere but its worldwide release, as a $5 rental at inyoureyesmovie.com. As Whedon explained, “It’s exciting for us because it means we get to explore yet another form of distribution, and get five dollars.” It’s exciting for his many loyal fans, because it marks a significantly shorter wait between festival and consumption than, say, that of his Much Ado About Nothing. It would be even more exciting if the film itself weren’t so puzzlingly misbegotten.
The advance word on the picture from star Zoe Kazan was “Joss Whedon does Nicholas Sparks,” and while crazier ideas have been floated, the surprise here is that Sparks comes out ahead — as in, it feels much more like a syrupy melodrama than a Whedon tweak. He plays this romantic drama fairly straight, which is an even stranger choice considering the utter goofiness of its premise.
To wit: a rich young socialite in New Hampshire (Kazan) and a roughneck ex-con in New Mexico (Michael Stahl-David) discover that they can experience each other’s senses — see what the other sees, hear what the other hears, feel what the other feels — simultaneously with their own. They’ve had occasional overlaps throughout their lives, since childhood, but they don’t become fully aware of the situation until they begin talking to each other. They dialogue. They make confessions. And wouldn’t ya know it, they fall in love.
No story is too ridiculous to succeed, if it’s done with wit and intelligence — after all, this is a writer whose breakthrough came with a television show about a cheerleader/vampire slayer. But you’d never guess In Your Eyes came from Whedon’s pen if his name didn’t appear in its opening credits. It’s not just that it’s missing his authorial voice (and hats off to a writer who doesn’t want to keep trotting out the same old tricks). But the snap we’ve come to expect from Whedon dialogue is missing entirely, and there’s a void in its place; he hasn’t replaced it with anything of note. It’s weirdly earnest, its preposterous premise perched on the edge of accidental parody from the beginning, and tumbling right over in fairly short order. (By the time they hit their mutual masturbation scene, accompanied by a song whose opening lyric is, no kidding, “I wanna feel your touch,” we’re firmly entrenched in the realm of unintentional comedy.)
During the post-movie Q&A, director Brin Hill acknowledged that Whedon “loves to touch his toes in tropes, but the great thing about him is he’s always turning them on their head.” Yet that turnabout is exactly what’s missing from In Your Eyes. Throughout the film, the Whedonite viewer is bound to impatiently wonder when the real movie is going to reveal itself, when the Cabin in the Woods-style turn will occur; even during the climax, I found myself hoping we were working our way towards some kind of meta-commentary on the contrivance of romantic happy endings. It certainly doesn’t seem like he could be asking us to take this claptrap seriously — particularly during the howler of a third act, which plays like a fire sale at the endings factory.
In Your Eyes isn’t a total waste. Director Hill and cinematographer Elisha Christian paint some pretty pictures, and some of the performances are nice (particularly the always reliable Kazan and Nikki Reed, who manages to play her “dim local girl” role well without looking down on it). And kudos to Whedon’s team for continuing to play in new distribution models. But in this case, the delivery system is more successful than the content. It’s the kind of total miscalculation that can only be cooked up by a writer of real skill and passion, going all in on a spectacularly bad idea. And it may just be worth your time and rental dollars, if for no other reason than as a reminder that even our favorite filmmakers aren’t infallible.