Whatever else co-writer, director and star Benjamin Dickinson’s Creative Control is, it is one of the most gorgeous-looking films out there — shot in gleaming black and white, with occasional touches of color in moments of fantasy (not unlike Coppola’s 2009 Tetro). It has a coolly classical, formal filmmaking style that is seductive, to say the least, though it’s not really enhanced by the overly familiar doses of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart on the soundtrack. (This may be a comment on the superficial nature of the characters.) It is more than a little indebted to Kubrick on many levels, especially in its visuals. (There is a direct, if thematically vague, reference to The Shining at one point.) OK, at this point, I seem pretty sold on the film — and, in one sense, I am — but its vaguely sci-fi premise (set in “near-future Brooklyn”) becomes off-putting pretty fast.
Worse, the film doesn’t provide a single likable character, making the whole thing as hard to care about as it is easy to admire. What we end up with is a kind of Scenes from the Lives of Upscale Brooklyn Hipsters, with all the substance that suggests. That it attempts to satirize these barely futuristic hipsters would be more convincing if the satire had any teeth. But it’s too dispassionate for that, while seemingly too much a part of the very thing it purports to find, at best, ridiculous and, at worst, one huge void. It doesn’t help that Dickinson wears so many hats in the making of the movie that it feels a little like a vanity project, though that may be peculiarly apt in a film that devotes a great deal of its time to high-tech masturbation.
Dickinson plays David, an excessively groomed, pill-popping advertising man who is coping with a demanding client over the ad campaign for something called Phalinex — an inhalable (read: vapable) anti-anxiety drug with a laundry list of side effects. The scenes where they shoot and reshoot the commercial — accentuating more and more keywords with each take — actually are pretty funny. (It’s no surprise that Dickinson’s background is in TV commercials.) But this is almost a side issue, since the film is mostly about Reggie Watts’ (played by Reggie Watts as a wigged-out, latter-day Steve Jobs — 1960s burnout variety) new invention, Augmenta. This is the latest word in virtual reality, rebranded as “augmented reality.”
Naturally, David falls prey to the device’s temptations to live vicariously, which here never amounts to much more than wanking fantasy dalliances with his rather repellent best friend’s (Dan Gill) much-cheated-on girlfriend Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen). Unsurprisingly, David quickly — too quickly — neglects his yoga instructor girlfriend (Nora Zehetner) and starts having trouble separating his augmented fantasy sex life from reality. How well this will work for you is going to depend a great deal, I suspect, on how much you can identify with the characters.
On the one hand, it feels a little like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) and a little like Spike Jonze’ Her (2013). On the other hand, it has a lot in common with such 1960s advertising satires as David Swift’s Good Neighbor Sam (1964) and Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname (1967) — being neither as funny as either, nor as truly corrosive as the latter. At best, it’s a beautiful-looking mixed bag that is more interesting than successful, but it is interesting and beautiful, and worth seeing on that basis. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and drug use.