Review: Experimenter (Sundance 2015)
PLOT: The true story of famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) who in the sixties conducted a landmark behavioral experiment concerned with the willingness of participants to inflict pain on others if told to do so by people in authority.
REVIEW: Every once in a while, I see a movie at Sundance that has so much potential but winds up being instantly disposable thanks to some truly bizarre artistic choices that are bound to alienate about 90% of the audience, dooming the film to obscurity. While it's impossible to tell whether or not that's the fate that's going to befall EXPERIMENTER, director Michael Almereyda's certainly not made things easy for himself but adopting a highly stylized, intentionally artificial tone that feels like artistic masturbation.
It's a shame because EXPERIMENTER should have been a good movie. Anyone who's ever taken a psychology class has heard of Milgram's infamous experiment, in which the vast majority of people surveyed were willing to inflict electric shocks on another subject who would complain of chest pain and beg for them to stop. It certainly held an ugly mirror up to society and proved the danger of conformity. With the always great Peter Sarsgaard starring as Milgram, the perennially underrated Winona Ryder as his wife how could this not be a slam-dunk?
For some ungodly reason, Almereyda goes for this ultra fake style throughout. By now, breaking the fourth wall is normal, but Almereyda goes way beyond, inexplicably inserting shots of an elephant following Milgram around, having Sarsgaard spontaneously break into song at one point, and worst of all shooting many interior shots on soundstages with blown-up images in the background making it feel like he's aping Lars Von Trier's work on DOGVILLE.
I suppose the argument is that Almereyda is trying to be as unconventional as he can to do justice to Milgram's study, but the artificiality goes too far, with Sarsgaard even sporting a hideous fake beard for the second half of the movie that had the press audience (those who didn't walk out) tittering throughout. Maybe Almereyda's having fun, but one wishes he'd get out of the way of his own material, as there's a good story to be told with something important to say. Rather, a good chunk of the movie is rendered unwatchable although at least the scenes depicting the experiment (with people like Anthony Edwards and Anton Yelchin playing participants, while Jim Gaffigan plays Milgram's colleague) are done straight. The only really amusing bit comes towards the end as Milgram watches his experiments dramatized into a (real) movie of the week with Kellan Lutz doing a spot-on impression of William Shatner, and Dennis Haysbert as Ossie Davis.
Begrudgingly, I will give EXPERIMENTER this. It's bad, but it's never boring. It's too goofy to be dull. Yet, I can't help but think Almereyda's still has torpedoed what could have been a good little film. Sad to say, this one is not salvageable.