By my (admittedly jaded) count, there are two shocking moments in Alex Ross Perry's startlingly original comedy, The Color Wheel. One shouldn't be spoiled; the other occurs when its leading man, played by Perry, enters a party and a stranger immediately pours a glass of red wine down his shirt. The joke — if that's what it is — elicits no verbal communication between bully and victim. It just happens, and Perry's hapless Colin is next seen cleaning his shirt.
This incident was, for me, even more bracing than The Color Wheel's taboo coup de grace. It is an explicit violation of the tenuous form of realism Perry cultivates in the first hour of his film, in which his pair of wounded-yet-defiant protagonists (Colin and his sister J.R., played by co-writer Carlen Altman) endure humiliations sad, funny, and utterly self-imposed. But here, Perry enters a realm that is either surreal or simply infuriating, and only after the film ends do you realize the director wants to have it both ways.
After some deliberation, you may find he does. The Color Wheel — screening at SPACE Gallery on May 31 — exists on a strange and very much intentional plane between awful and brilliant, amateurish and masterful. Shot in grainy, beautifully framed wide-screen 16mm black-and-white, the film follows Colin and J.R. on a road trip to Boston, where J.R. needs to remove her belongings from the home of the broadcast journalism professor she's been sleeping with.
The pair disembark and immediately begin a hilarious, relentless, intensely barbed form of screwball banter. As J.R., a proud product of the Me Generation — she both proclaims and defends herself as being "special" numerous times — speaks of dreams of Hollywood, Colin reminds her she couldn't read until she was 10 and reveals that she wasn't invited to a family vacation because no one wanted to hear about her "pathetic shambled life." (J.R.'s self-preserving response: "I'm sure mom and dad didn't invite me because I don't like the ocean.") What little conversational dead space exists is filled with casually racist jokes.
As the insults cut deeper, Perry delights in road-movie tropes, including a night at a strictly religious hotel and a visit to a diner where Colin receives a sandwich decorated with sparklers ("Happy birthday dear patron!"). Nearly all of the film's anecdotal characters are even more cruel than Colin and J.R., and heedlessly so.
That crucial realization will presumably only dawn on viewers when — if even then — Colin and J.R. attend the aforementioned party of a high school friend of J.R.'s, during a scene in which she is interrogated about what she does for work while she pursues her dream of becoming a broadcast journalist. The answer is simple — nothing — but J.R. claims to be a nurse to avoid the ridicule of her well-to-do peers, and is praised by a young man in a wheelchair.
The scene initially plays like a further, unfunny excuse to humiliate a naive girl by placing her in a room full of successful, pretentious young go-getters. What Perry is really trying to say, though, is: these people are assholes. Their uncomplicated lives are defined by their occupations, which they use to condescend to perceived slackers who are not ashamed to be "figuring things out" and who — probably of paramount importance to Perry — do not deny themselves life's riskier, perhaps revelatory elements.