“Bubbly, clear-eyed sex comedy” is the last pitch a studio would expect from a writer shopping around a movie about depression, but The Year of Spectacular Men has a nifty hook: It’s a family affair, authored by and starring Madelyn Deutch, co-starring her younger sister Zoey and directed by their mom, Lea Thompson, focusing her daughters’ raucous sibling banter through paralytic sadness. Family is all about taking the bad with the good, the giddy, wisecracking banter and sororal love with the behavioral health troubles and personal tragedy. Paying for the lows alongside the highs feels like a bargain.
Madelyn plays Izzy, older sister to Sabrina (Zoey), the adult children of Deb (Thompson). Their story isn’t totally unhappy. Sabrina is hitting her career stride and passionately committed to her boyfriend, Sebastian (Avan Jogia), while Deb has found love with a much younger woman, Amythyst (Melissa Bolona), years after the death of the girls’ father. Madelyn, in contrast to Sabrina and Deb, flounders, scraping through college by the skin of her teeth and exiting her relationship with her boyfriend Aaron (Jesse Bradford) by falling flat on her ass. Aaron’s fed up with Izzy’s phases: her ceramics phase, her salad phase, her Brazilian drumming phase. She’s all over the place. You can hardly blame him for running out of patience.
Except that he’s a large diameter douchebag, the first and worst of the many men with which Izzy entangles for the rest of The Year of Spectacular Men’s duration. There’s theater guy Ross (Cameron Monaghan), who leads her on (and frankly has a fixation on cuddling that’s kind of gross), then Logan (Brandon T. Jackson), Aaron’s friend, who runs into Izzy at a party in Los Angeles after she moves cross-country to live with Sabrina and Sebastian, then Charlie (Nicholas Braun), a director as well as a walking endorsement for SSRIs. The film doles out these encounters over the course of a year, if the title isn’t a dead giveaway, framing Izzy’s misadventures in the spirit of schadenfreude without being mean-spirited.
Deutch shoulders the burden of humiliation with what passes as befuddled stoicism. Izzy doesn’t often let the world get her down, but when she does, she makes her inability to accomplish literally anything seem just shy of charming and delightful. That’s no small feat. Nothing sucks the air out of a room, or a film, like millennials whining about the bum hand dealt them by fate. Izzy’s a catastrophe on two feet. She spends so much time mummified in her blanket that it’s a miracle she’s not covered in bedsores. When she does wail, she doesn’t wail out of entitlement.
The Year of Spectacular Men is a film about imperfection and the beauty of failure. It’d be a stretch to say the Deutch sisters and Thompson embrace or advocate for failure, but more that they, and the movie they’ve made, understand that nobody knows who they are, where they’re going, or what they want out of life when they’re in their 20s, newly sprung from an upbringing predominantly spent in school. Narratives about the world’s Izzys tend to look at them unflatteringly, writing them off as brats or know-nothings, or generally treating them like disposable punchlines. The Year of Spectacular Men wants us to laugh at her, no doubt about that, but as the film builds we realize we’re laughing with her.
We laugh out of fondness instead of malice. We feel bad enough for Izzy that we don’t need to mock her lethargy to make ourselves feel better. Amorous woes aside, the battle she wages with her despondency isn’t a laughing matter. The Year of Spectacular Men invites our laughter, but routinely reminds the audience that depression kills. The film studiously avoids connecting Izzy’s low spirits to the circumstances of her dad’s passing (he committed suicide, a secret kept from Sabrina to protect her from the awful truth), but we still draw lines between the two, acknowledging an unspoken, sobering underlayer to the comic top notes.
Relish the pleasures couched in a breezy, bawdy, screwball tale of familial bonding, but take to heart their doleful implications. Team Deutch has fully assembled once before, in 2011’s Mayor Cupcake, and if The Year of Spectacular Men makes any kind of statement, it’s that Madelyn and Zoey ought to work together more often. Put simply, they’re amazing, lively, sharp, snarky with a side of cheer—for the time being The Year of Spectacular Men feels like their gift to us, an unexpected blend of comedic tones and a perfectly bittersweet summertime respite.
Director: Lea Thompson
Writer: Madelyn Deutch
Starring: Madelyn Deutch, Zoey Deutch, Lea Thompson, Avan Jogia, Melissa Bolona, Nicholas Braun, Brandon T. Jackson, Cameron Monaghan, Jesse Bradford
Release Date: June 15, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.