As a recovering Ivy Leaguer with quasi-anarchistic political leanings, I should’ve ostensibly found myself squarely within the target audience for Captain Fantastic. Yet, despite the occasional accusation of intellectual elitism leveled at your humble reviewer, even I found this film too sanctimonious for its own good at times. Despite that fact, a clever script and some first-rate performances do a great deal to compensate for the movie’s inflated sense of its own value, resulting in a film as original as it is compelling — albeit one that falls just short of delivering on the promise of its premise. It would be safe to say that my principal complaint about Captain Fantastic is that I wanted to like it more than I ultimately did. That complaint was sufficiently obtrusive in my analysis of the film that it was edged out for my Pick of the Week by Bad Moms, a film I enjoyed more than I expected.
Written and directed by character actor Matt Ross, this movie left me wondering how far from reality his portrayal of pseudo-spiritual blowhard Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley might actually be. That said, there is something moving about Ross’ worldview, a utopian vision of benevolent dictatorship in which honesty and integrity always win the day, even if this often feels like wishful thinking. Ross’ script addresses such concerns with a poignant second act that allows his protagonist’s crisis of faith to drag on a bit too long but still manages to imbue the struggle with believability and relatability — at least insofar as those terms can be applied to the story of a highly educated social dropout raising a brood of “philosopher kings” in near-total isolation. Ross intends to portray his characters’ off-the-grid self-sufficiency as a precondition necessary for a sort of postmodern Kallipolis, but Ross is no Plato, and The Republic this ain’t. The greatest deficiency in Ross’ narrative is that it’s so successful in establishing his characters’ superiority over their contextual hoi polloi that it feels more like a cop-out than a catharsis when they inevitably move towards a more rational middle ground.
My quibbles with the script are relatively minor, however, and Captain Fantastic has a tremendous ace up its sleeve in the form of a standout cast. Although the young actors and actresses playing the kids at the center of the story stumble over some of the early dialogue’s elevated tone, by the film’s end they all inhabit their roles with a level of competency and commitment that belies their age. Frank Langella is beautifully cast as Viggo Mortensen’s overbearing bourgeois father-in-law, and his deft transitions between grandfatherly dotage and outright menace are a true testament to his virtuosity. But, as good as the supporting cast is, it’s impossible to imagine Captain Fantastic starring anyone other than Viggo Mortensen, and he carries the film with such admirable aplomb that this role has rightfully earned its place among his finest performances, at least in my book. I can’t readily come up with another actor working today who could carry off a full-frontal scene on the steps of a bus in a trailer park with the same self-assured air. In many instances throughout the film his performance is the only element keeping the proceedings from devolving into self-parody.
Captain Fantastic premiered to positive reviews at Sundance, and that’s to be expected if only because this feels like a film tailored to please precisely such an audience. In essence, this is a movie made in direct response to a world in which Idiocracy feels increasingly like a documentary. To be sure, there is gratification to be had in watching an 8-year-old trounce her mouth-breathing, high school-aged cousins with her superior understanding of the Bill of Rights. But that gratification can only be derived from an inherently smug sense of self-righteousness, and it’s this underlying pomposity that threatens to undermine the film thematically. Those who see some appeal in replacing Christmas with a celebration of secular humanism that substitutes the birth of Christ with that of Noam Chomsky will absolutely love this film, but it’s unlikely to go over well with most filmgoers firmly ensconced in the culture and politics of the Bible Belt. On that basis, if you feel like Captain Fantastic is a film intended for you, then you’re sure to enjoy the ride. All others should wait for the next bus. Rated R for language and brief graphic nudity
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark