Aiming to satirize the ways that smartphone addiction has transformed and infected our social lives, writer-director Russell Brown comes up with a few well-considered insights but finally has nothing particularly fresh to say about the matter. Among the ensemble he’s gathered for Search Engines, his comic slant on a California Thanksgiving, most serve as mouthpieces for various sides of the topic, rather than fully fleshed characters.
The promising energy of the early scenes, with its sharp banter and the insinuating camera moves of DP Christopher Gosch, gives way to an increasingly flat, repetitive and barely dramatized argument. The film might find better reception on devices than in theaters, its chief novelty being the onscreen pairing of real-life mother and daughter Connie Stevens and Joely Fisher.
All talk and no compelling action.
Fisher plays newly divorced art journalist Judy, a non-cook who’s intent on preparing her first traditional Thanksgiving feast, working from recipes bookmarked on her phone. The sudden loss of cell reception in her suburban neighborhood throws a wrench into the meal preparation (does no one have a laptop?), and throws most of her guests into a tizzy.
More convincing than the intended comic turmoil is the chemistry among Fisher, Daphne Zuniga and Rick Slavin (his jittery performance is the film’s only affecting one) as siblings. Stevens provides an earnest sweetness as their GPS-challenged mom, while Judy’s daughters (Grace Folsom, Nicole Cummins) wisely stay out of the fray, turning to such antediluvian amusements as books and board games.
Rather than enriching the would-be satire, the collection of holiday guests increasingly feels like narrative clutter. Some are obvious emblems, others are just there. In different ways, smartphones embody far deeper problems between two conspicuously unhappy married couples: Michael Muhney plays a sexually dishonest husband, and Michelle Hurd is another man’s self-involved wife, who derives validation from her constant online reviewing. It’s no surprise when their digitally cast-off partners (Natasha Gregson Wagner, Barry Watson) bond over analog appreciation — or what another character dismissively calls “nostalgia for inconvenience.”
Had Brown (Race You to the Bottom, The Blue Tooth Virgin) found a way to ingrain his ideas in the various relationships rather than spelling them out, the movie might have found a compelling groove. Instead he attempts to tie together the various strands through the character Shane (Nick Court), a sort of performance blogger; location-based group happenings are his specialty. With Judy’s blessing, the Brit sets about interviewing the others about this most American of holidays, but mainly about their increasingly apparent dependence on web-connected devices.
Court brings a welcome weirdness and mystery to the role. That he turns out to be something of a villain — a crafty manipulator, anyway — is far less satisfying than intended, the air having been let out of the story long before.
The movie’s final, striking image suggests that Brown was reaching for something far more charged and unsettling than what unfolds onscreen. He captures a specific SoCal setting persuasively, but he struggles to turn it into a world where reading Madame Bovary or playing Boggle can feel truly subversive.
Distributor: Indican Pictures
Production: Ridgestone Media
Cast: Joely Fisher, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Connie Stevens, Daphne Zuniga, Barry Watson, Jonathan Slavin, Michael Muhney, Michelle Hurd, Devon Graye, Philipp Karner, Nick Court, Grace Folsom, Nicole Cummins, Ayumi Iizuka, Brooklyn Bella
Director-screenwriter: Russell Brown
Producers: Kerry Barden, Russell Brown, John Baumgartner
Director of photography: Christopher Gosch
Production designer: Leah Mann
Costume designer: Kristen Anacker
Editor: Christopher Munch
Composer: Ryan Beveridge
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Not rated, 98 minutes