This review of “The Nowhere Inn” was first published after the film’s premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
“The Nowhere Inn” — a new meta-concert doc produced, written by and starring Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Annie “St. Vincent” Clark — is a collection of comedic and musical sketches that are not funny, weird or thoughtful enough to sell its creators’ insistent, but mostly trite and undeveloped, ideas about the performative nature of self-fashioning and creative authenticity.
Directed by Bill Benz (Brownstein’s semi-regular “Portlandia” collaborator), “The Nowhere Inn” is initially presented as a dramatized version of Brownstein and Clark’s real-life attempts at filming a St. Vincent concert movie. So at the start, the movie’s sketchier qualities appear to reflect both the surreal emotional peaks and troughs of a live musical tour.
Unfortunately, the movie’s cringe humor-style gags are mostly thin and monotonous, and even a few psychedelic later scenes — which look like stylish but tame homages to both Donald Cammell’s “Performance” and David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” — don’t quite land. “The Nowhere Inn” is basically the movie version of those poems about writers’ block that you turned into your high school’s creative writing class. The biggest difference between your adolescent, try-hard attempts at phoning it in and “The Nowhere Inn” is that it’s hard to imagine that anybody demanded that Brownstein and Clark produce a movie about their artistic constipation.
Since “The Nowhere Inn” follows Clark on one of her St. Vincent tours, the movie predictably begins as Clark’s narrative but eventually concerns Brownstein and her inability to separate herself from her friend’s art and identity. The opening scene is the first part of a running gag: Throughout the movie, Clark is confronted by obnoxious hangers-on who don’t know who she is, including a limo driver who mysteriously pulls Clark’s car over to the side of the road and disappears after Clark tries to sing one of her songs for him.
This scene is basically the movie in a nutshell: Clark is confronted by representatives of a curious but insensitive world but, in bending over backwards to meet their expectations, only winds up involved in mildly alienating but mostly unmemorable backstage encounters.
Clark may be a commanding presence on-stage — as we see in brief, but dynamic concert footage — but she’s a crashing bore whenever she tries to satisfy Brownstein’s peevish requests to be more interesting off-stage. Admittedly, Brownstein, playing herself, doesn’t give the movie version of Clark that much to work with when she suggests that Clark try throwing a dance party or talking about her incarcerated dad instead of playing Scrabble or enthusing about radishes.
There’s also not much happening on-screen when Clark pontificates about feeding off of her audience’s emotions or forces a squirming Brownstein to film an off-screen lesbian sex act. Brownstein’s character isn’t much more compelling, unfortunately. She mostly stands by while Clark has the least interesting psychotic breakdown in recent cinema.
Throughout “The Nowhere Inn,” the movie version of Clark doesn’t do anything more outlandish or funny than trying to act like an arty Madonna clone. In a typical scene, Clark tries to amp up her band’s more exotic and edgy elements for Brownstein’s movie, like when she describes one bandmate as “Japanese” while a horrified Brownstein lets her friend embarrass herself. That’s a good start, but the scene never builds to anything that the last couple of vignettes didn’t already suggest, partly because Clark, playing herself, doesn’t reveal anything about herself beyond a general disdain for aloof and pretentious rock stars. Is she really like that? Who can say, and why does it matter?
In a handful of scenes, Brownstein (also playing herself) tries to keep up with Clark as she demands more and more attention: First Clark wants her arrival to be announced at a post-concert event film, then she wants Brownstein to shoot a trippy sequence involving homemade pecan pie and Clark’s extended family members, all of whom are immediately identified as actors playing Clark’s relatives. There’s also a few scenes where Brownstein almost starts an argument with Clark, but she always backs down before she and Clark talk about touchy subjects, like their fathers, one of whom is imprisoned (Clark’s) and the other being a hospitalized nudzh (Michael Bofshever, playing Brownstein’s dad) who’s only interested in “The Nowhere Inn” because it’s a movie, and thus somehow more impressive than any of Brownstein’s other projects.
Unfortunately, any parallels between Brownstein and Clark are kept vague since neither character wants to talk about how their parents or family members make them feel. So while diehard fans of Brownstein and Clark’s music might find something compelling about the film’s deliberately frustrating collection of anti-jokes and non-confrontations, there’s not much to the movie beyond a few modest laughs and some cool wide-angle cinematography, courtesy of director of photography Minka Farthing-Kohl (Comedy Central’s “Detroiters”).
If there’s ultimately nothing genuine about “The Nowhere Inn,” it’s not because there’s something inherently bogus or suspect about wanting your favorite artists to perform for you: Brownstein and Clark just weren’t able to find anything real enough to enliven their frustrated meta-search for realness.
“The Nowhere Inn” opens in limited theatrical release on September 17.