Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein play with the fuzzy lines between artistic identity and celebrity in ways that both entertain and befuddle.
In one of The Nowhere Inn’s several recurring clips, Carrie Brownstein confides in her best friend. She says that she wants to do bigger things. She declares herself as being stuck in a rut creatively and, acquiescing to the possibility that only those closest to her truly get something out of her work. As for the friend in question, she’s Annie Clark—the Annie Clark. But in spite of the casual intimacy of the conversation, there’s a clear disconnect. Carrie is Carrie, often behind the scenes. Annie is St. Vincent, on the stage and in the public eye. They’re both themselves, but one has more clout, the kind that allows for more artistic leeway.
Of course, this exchange is something of a farce given the context. They both play themselves; they wrote the script together, which follows Carrie making a documentary about St. Vincent. This bit in question, which itself develops into a motif, is each of them using one eye to wink at the view and the other to wink at the other. As co-writers and co-stars, Brownstein and Clark also wink a lot. But as Carrie tries to spruce up Annie’s image in her documentary, they both begin to lose themselves. If Portlandia director Bill Benz’s camera is a vessel for Brownstein and Clark’s artistic expression, Carrie’s is a vortex to an ontological crisis.
It’s all quite fascinating in theory. With The Nowhere Inn, the two writers try to stack different realities onto one another, juxtaposing the “real” reality and the content of the film itself. The final result yields several positives, and while many of them stem from its ideas, that’s not inherently a bad thing. The issues, however, do stem from the construction itself. Between its more self-satisfied tangents and characterizations that don’t do justice to its core, The Nowhere Inn lacks sufficient internal logic to fully work.
Some of that logic (or lack thereof) is narrative, most of which come back to how the script depicts its two leads. It’s an issue that doesn’t show itself until the back half, but at first, it seems to work well enough. That’s because it relies not only on archetypes but the perception of certain archetypes. In the case of the first half, it’s between the idea of a rock star and the idea of a director. They’re both creatives, different sides of the same coin. The lack of definition works because they’re each part of a semiotic conflict not between the inside and outside, but instead between the face of artistic expression versus its own reality.
Soon after Carrie tries to get Annie to match what they expect prospective audiences’ expectations of St. Vincent to be, Annie sees it as a relief. She can be more assertive because that’s what rock stars do. She doesn’t have to be as obsequious, even though she isn’t really that much to begin with as much as she is decent and true to herself. As more constructs come into play, the barometers shift. Once The Nowhere Inn moves to its next layer, of examining the archetype itself, things start to get shaky. As it turns out, the script at hand didn’t do that great of a job establishing who Annie really is as a character.
The film gives glimpses of it, but it’s largely in Clark’s performance. Early on as Annie meets or talks with people in her orbit, it’s par for the course. People use her celebrity, namely her St. Vincent moniker, as something to show off to others. They exploit her through sheer interaction; they treat her as a prop. But while these moments ring true, they’re also not specific to Annie herself. The movie doesn’t lay out the sort of stuff that she specifically goes through so much as it recites what happens to myriad artists of her ilk. It ultimately plays as impersonal. When she changes later in the film, the starting point retroactively shows itself as not that well defined.
Instead, The Nowhere Inn goes long on more explicitly comedic asides. Most of them feel like online sketches, which are fine in the moment, but they distract from the themes until it’s as if the film begins to grow uninterested in what it’s actually about. Clark varied performance moves them along, at least as much as one actor can. By the last 20 minutes when the script tries to blend Adult Swim humor with a distracting amount of David Lynch allusions, Benz’s picture loses itself.
Maybe it would have worked better had a more skilled director been at the helm. Benz and DP Minka Farthing-Kohl lack the visual language to bring the layers here to life or truly differentiate them. The aesthetic is crisp but often flat, even if it grows more varied by the end. Alas, the swath of angles from which The Nowhere Inn approaches its topics can’t help but feel thinner as it goes along. In inviting viewers to deconstruct its narrative lunacy, it forgets one crucial thing: that lunacy itself isn’t something to deconstruct.
The Nowhere Inn is currently in select theaters courtesy of IFC Films.