“5 Star Day” is an indie film, and it shows. All the earmarks are here: the peppy and fun indie music soundtrack, the long takes featuring characters in interestingly framed settings, the smart or wannabe smart dialogue, the art-for-art’s-sake guiding principle . . . and the tonal self-importance that reminds you of graduate students talking about Hegel or Bakhtin in a coffee shop, loudly enough for all to hear.
That’s an unfair generalization, of course, but when you review as many movies as I do each year, it’s hard not to notice patterns (and yes, develop certain prejudices). Because so many indie films immerse you in the world of a single point-of-view character, heaven help you if you don’t happen to like that character.
It was a problem I faced with “5 Star Day,” which stars Cam Gigandet (“Easy A,” “The O.C.”). His character, Jake, annoyed the heck out of me. Same with his roommate. They struck me as pretentious and self-absorbed, compounded by the fact that writer-director Danny Buday reduces them to single-cell cinematic organisms. Though they’re both students who work jobs (we see each only long enough to verify their employment), the roommate has blackboards full of mathematical equations-in-progress, and cards with the same sort of stuff clipped to string strung like clotheslines all over his room. That’s it. That’s who he is, other than functioning as a banter outlet.
Jake is also in college, and whether it’s as an undergrad or graduate student (we can’t tell), it’s more than a little curious that he has just one assignment in one class that he obsesses over: a paper for his ethics class which purports to prove that “astrology is bullshit.” So he gets a list of people who were born within minutes of him in the same hospital in Chicago and seeks each of them out, traveling from Berkeley to Chicago, then Atlantic City. Yeah, my undergraduate students go to those lengths to write papers for me all the time.
So what about attending class? Or other classes? Even if he’s a grad student he’s got to have more than one class, unless he’s ABD, and that clearly isn’t the case. What’s even more preposterous is that what sets this little project in motion is the Worst. Birthday. Ever. He gets canned from a job that sure looks to me to be full-time, his expensive car (really?) gets stolen, and he walks in on his girlfriend just as she’s in the throes of passion with another guy. Then, like Superman, he rips the whole faucet head off his bathroom sink and there’s no under-sink shut-off (really?). So he loses his job, his girl, his car, and his apartment, all in the same day. But hey, he’s got to do this ethics paper, which he acted as if he didn’t care about when he confronted his teacher like some bad boy from “Beverly Hills 90210.”
Structurally, “5 Star Day” falls somewhere between “Touched by an Angel” and “Crash.” You know from the minute he announces his list of shared birthday folks that he’s going to visit each one, and that either he’s going to have some effect on their lives, or vice versa. Or maybe they’ll all intersect in some way.
But there’s an annoying sense of entitlement in Jake’s character, who tells people about his project with the kind of attitude seventh graders have, as if they’ve told you already and can’t be bothered to explain in any detail. His first stop is to look up a young woman named Sarah (Jena Malone), a single mom whose reaction is the right thing to do: not let him in. After all, he’s a stranger. And he also proves himself to be a stalker. And yet, some cutesy flirtatious contest in a diner is supposed to convince her to open up to him?
The second stop is equally unrealistic. Here he finds Yvette (Brooklyn Sudano), a young woman who works with troubled teens and whose first reaction is to treat him like someone on drugs (which, truthfully, is how he acts with that I’m-too-cool-to-be-real attitude). But she too has the world’s quickest turnaround, and the next thing you know she’s opening up to him on the commuter train.
By the time he gets to Atlantic City and looks up an entertainer named Wes (Max Hartman), there’s no questioning whatsoever. Wes just lets Jake buy him a drink after a set, and soon the two are doing the town as if they were old friends, and Jake is “crashing” at his place. It gets even more outlandish. When an incident happens and Jake brings the individual to the emergency room, he’s actually allowed to go back and see the person and later handed the person’s personal effects by a nurse. Really? What hospital works that way?
And when one of the characters tells him about a medical condition, Jake says in voiceover, “We have the same horoscope, but he’s dying. What does it mean?” Uh, when someone tells you he’s dying and your response is to think about your ethics paper or wonder what it all means, it means you’re a self-absorbed asshole. And that was the problem I had with the main character. It’s not the acting, mind you, it’s the character.
If it weren’t for the lively soundtrack featuring Doves, Guster, Tristen, and the Henry Clay People, as well as some great music in a jazz club and accomplished cinematography, I would have found Jake annoying enough to toss overboard. But that’s the thing about indie films. There’s so much that’s done well that you keep watching, hoping that the filmmaker will right the ship.
I was stunned, actually, by the superb production values. The Super 35 looks great in 1080p, with only the barest hint of grain and an overall look that matches films with bigger budgets. Colors are appropriately saturated to the scene, edge delineation and black levels are strong, and there’s the kind of detail we expect to see on a Blu-ray disc these days. “5 Star Day” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a less-special English Dolby Digital 5.1, though in fairness it sounds pretty good, even when the music kicks in. But while it’s tonally pure, it’s just not going to blow anyone away. There are no subtitles.
Indie film fans will be glad that Buday included his 2005 short film “Dependency,” a 22-minute drama about a musician who freaks out when, freshly out of rehab, he has to perform for the first time without being high. Buday’s commentary track with cinematographer Jason Oldak is also worth a listen because the photography is one of the film’s strengths, and there’s something about an indie filmmaker talking about his work that seems more honest and passionate than we sometimes get from directors of commercial films.
Those are the best of the bonus features. Five deleted scenes don’t really add up to much (7 minutes, actually), and a photo gallery and trailer seem gratuitous. That leaves a behind-the-scenes featurette of under a half-hour that’s really just raw, unedited and unremarked-upon footage of the filming process. Again, indie film fans or new filmmakers might like it, but I found it marginally interesting.
As indie films go, “5 Star Day” has good production values, strong performances, and compelling cinematography. It’s the premise, plot, and character development that keep it from being successful.