Son of the Fonz Makes Comedy From Pain

Max Winkler's film Ceremony made its bow at the Angelika the other night in what was billed as an "uber-New York" event. This presumably refers to the film's sophisticated comic vibe and its setting along some high-end Long Island waterfront. A first feature from writer/director Winkler, Ceremony was introduced by co-producer and mentor Jason Reitman (Up in the Air). The film focuses on 23-year-old Sam (Michael Angarano), an aspiring writer of children's books, who has persuaded his sort-of best friend (Reece Thompson) to share a weekend in Long Island to rekindle their flagging friendship. But it soon becomes clear that Sam is infatuated with markedly older former lover Zoe (Uma Thurman), who's about to be married to successful doc filmmaker (Lee Pace) at his lavish seaside estate. Armed with a crazy dream and wedding ring, Sam plans to crash her nuptials and make off with the bride himself. But his scheme starts to unravel as youthful romantic fantasies run up against adult compromise.

Despite the old plot chestnut of crashing a wedding, Ceremony feels quirky and heart-felt. It fashions comedy from, one suspects, the filmmaker's pain, creating a direct pipeline from life to screen. Most viewers will identify with Sam's stubborn longing impervious to reason. What makes his romantic quest all the more far-fetched is not only the difference in age, but the one in size. The eye easily accepts men towering over women. But when we see elfin, boyish Max beside tall, leggy Thurman, it plays like a visual blooper that makes it hard to perceive them as a viable couple. (Though Henry Kravis and Hizzoner the Mayor have struck a blow for equal opportunity; maybe the millions help.)

In another original touch, Lee Pace's character may be a pretentious, blowhard Brit, who shows ludicrous films of himself cavorting with Africans in a nature documentary. But he's a nuanced character who turns out to be more of a mensch than Sam imagines. If he's not an ideal choice for Uma, their union serves as Sam's overdue introduction to the real world of grownups. Sure, Winkler leans heavily on Wes Anderson; the triangle of a young guy and mature man butting horns over a woman echos Rushmore, as does much of the film's whimsy. I don't know if Winkler intended the idea of wealthy-documentary-filmmaker as a joke, but of course it's an oxymoron. (Definition for the post-literate: "A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence.") And the satirical portrait of the wedding guests lands somewhat wide of the mark, falling uneasily between old money WASPs and Eurotrash. Overall, though, Ceremony feels as fresh as those breezes coming off the Sound, its antics threaded with a winning poignancy.

At the after party at ultra-hip Don Hill's in the South Village, everyone was happy to come in from the blustery spring night, drink champagne, and chow down on carbs. When I asked a journo next to me if Max was the son of Irwin Winkler, she said, "Henry Winkler, the Fonz. Didn't you know that?" I tried to explain that Irwin was the producing partner of my friend Phyllis's ex-husband Bob and they did Rocky, etc., but she'd moved off. I caught up with Max-son-of-the-Fonz, who was darting about like Tinkerbell. Jesse Eisenberg, I learned, was originally set to play Sam, but then came the little matter of The Social Network and Anganaro took over the role. How did he get Uma? "She liked the script -- there's part of her that's sort of a big kid like Zoe who's afraid to grow up.

Might one assume that Thurman's character is based on one of his own lost loves? "Yes, the film's pretty personal and comes from my own life. It was just something I needed to make." He'd originally shown Jason Reitman the script for a far bigger film, but was counseled to debut with something smaller. "I agreed it would be sort of a good way to make my first film, to ensure that I feel very close to it. And I just love those movies, the weekend in the country where all this shit sort of comes out." To collectors of trivia: Both Reitman and Winkler are second-generation filmmakers with famous Hollywood fathers.