There are a number of small pleasures to be found in John Cameron Mitchell’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” a stylish genre mash-up that’s oddly too messy and too prim at the same time. A clash between “Starman” and “The Clash” with a healthy side of “Rocky Horror,” the film sets a gang of young punks against a cabal of antiseptic aliens in grungy late ’70s London. It comes off feeling more like promising studio outtake than a polished final track.
It’s 1977, punk reigns supreme, and Enn (Alex Sharp) has just ended up at a party full of aliens. They don’t look like ETs – having assumed human forms and all that — but they sure do act the part, engaging in strange rituals, dressing in space-age latex and preparing for a bizarre ceremony.
One of the them, Zan (Elle Fanning doing a kind of manic-alien-dream-girl spin), takes special interest in Enn, and so she follows him to his house, where she’ll spend the next two days learning about sex, love and rock’n’roll (no drugs here!) before she’s due back in outer space.
Loosely adapted from a Neil Gaiman short story, the film is mostly the product of writer/director Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett’s imaginations and is at its best when marshaling the musical abandon of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the free-for-all sexuality of “Shortbus.” But it loses a step when parceling out its complicated mythology — and that’s not just in reference to the aliens.
As queen bee of the local punk scene, Nicole Kidman represents both the film’s strengths and faults. Her performance is a hoot, and the film livens up every time she steps on screen. At the same time, there is something too calculating about her character. With her constant references to real punk luminaries and her almost too-perfect Siouxsie Sioux look, Kidman feels less like a person and more like a device, another figure in a punk pageant.
That’s a problem that bedevils much of the film; by trying so hard to recreate and contextualize “punk,” it works against that aesthetic-driving ideology.
Honestly, the most punk rock moment of the whole film comes towards the end. Once the local youth has stormed the aliens to prevent them from eating their young as part of their rebirth ritual (the mythology is a bit out there), they realize, halfway through fighting, that hey — it’s tea time! And so the fighting stops, the drinking begins and the film actually embraces the credo of freedom and nonconformity so many characters spent so many long screen minutes espousing in speech.
With great style and an appealing (if somewhat disingenuous) counter-cultural air, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” would have had a long life on the midnight movie circuit in a previous period. We’re in a different era now, and you can imagine that by this time next year the film will live on, broken down into ten thousand 3-second gifs across infinite tumblr pages.