If you’ve ever wanted to do tai chi, play Twister and/or conduct a sexual experiment with a cult of color-coded-rubber enthusiasts, the first big set-piece in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” should serve you nicely.
It’s 1977, the year of the queen’s Silver Jubilee and a pivotal moment in the U.K.’s burgeoning punk-rock scene, and in the South London borough of Croydon, aspiring teenage anarchist Enn (Alex Sharp) and his friends have stumbled on one hell of a gathering. Imagine a psychedelic performance-art collective, some of them doing synchronized acrobatics while dressed in Sandy Powell’s bright, lickable costumes (it’s like they’re wearing pieces of Fruit Roll-Up) and listening to music that sounds like humpback whales in outer space.
Let it never be said that the director, John Cameron Mitchell, doesn’t know how to show you a very weird time. It’s when the party’s over that the pleasures of this shapeless, strenuously eccentric movie begin to evaporate. Future films may yet mine fresh riches from the nascent punk-rock alien-invasion romantic-comedy subgenre, but “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” for all its rebel-yell spirit, seems to exhaust its inspiration and sense of possibility in the first half-hour.
That’s around the point in the narrative that Neil Gaiman’s same-titled short story had the sense to come to an end. Adapted and strenuously expanded here by Mitchell and Philippa Goslett, that story offered a slender, charmingly literal-minded riff on the idea that, for a certain kind of young man, conversing with the opposite sex might be as difficult as conversing with an extraterrestrial.
For the script’s purposes, Enn fares better in that department than you might expect. Despite some initial awkwardness, he hits it off with the sweet but stern-willed Zan (Elle Fanning), who, as one quickly deduces from her odd speech patterns and general air of deadpan idiosyncrasy, is not exactly of this world. (It takes Enn and his bumbling pals, played by AJ Lewis and Ethan Lawrence, a bit longer to figure it out.) And Zan reciprocates Enn’s fascination enough to abandon her alien colony for 24 hours under the pretext of conducting scientific research.
You can imagine a different movie swerving into surreal, nightmarish territory here, like a head-banging, Damned-driven remake of “Under the Skin.” But Mitchell, who gave us a glam-rock blissout in his 2001 film of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and a joyous vision of carnal utopia in “Shortbus” (2006), can’t suppress his instinctive good vibes. Even when some of the aliens’ more unsavory practices come into play, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is an aimless, sweet-souled jumble. Its ebullience is palpable, if rarely infectious.
Over the next 24 hours, Zan and Enn will hang out, make out, sift through stacks of vinyl and hit up a warehouse performance by a rising punk band, the Dyschords, fronted by the imperious Boadicea (a fabulously white-wigged Nicole Kidman), who flies her freak flag high and turns a laserlike glare on anyone who doesn’t do the same with theirs. Naturally, she takes a liking to Zan, at one point pushing her into an impromptu onstage duet with Enn that briefly brings the movie screaming back to life.
If you’re going to cast an actress as that otherworldly object of desire, it’s hard to argue with Fanning, whose farm-fresh smile has always had a tinge of the supernatural. But neither her presence nor the movie’s thin, under-dramatized love story registers much amid so much half-hearted alien weirdness, including a few sudden blips of computer-generated imagery that suggest nothing so much as early concept art for the Infinity Stones.
‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’
Rating: R, for language throughout, sexual content, some drug use and nudity