There's a famous line in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer finale where Buffy calls herself cookie dough, because she's "not done baking." That's sort of how I feel about In Your Eyes, the paranormal romcom that Joss Whedon just released on the internet. It needed more time in the oven. Spoilers ahead...
So this is somewhere between a movie review and a TV recap. In Your Eyes debuted on Vimeo yesterday, which means that a ton of people have already seen it, and it's arguably like a piece of television in that way. But it's also a movie — and in any case, I don't have anything terribly spoilery to say about it.
In Your Eyes has a wonderful premise, that feels as though it never quite gets off the ground: Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) and Becky (Zoe Kazan) are linked, so that they experience each other's sensations. For a stretch of the movie, this is just a cause for hijinks (he's in a barfight while she's at a fancy dinner party!), but then they start hearing each other's voices and it takes a sharp left turn into being a story about having an imaginary friend who talks back to you.
That's as far as I'll go with the spoilers.
In a sense, this movie is your standard romcom about two lonely people who connect over a vast distance, and find comfort with each other. It's Sleepless In Seattle, except that Kazan's character is married to allergy guy. But the hijinks also continue, like when Becky is at a fancy fundraiser for her husband's colleagues and Dylan is on a date that goes wackily wrong.
But really, the nugget of the story is about mental illness, and hearing voices, and the issue that Whedon's script seems to be trying to tease out is how these people are messed up, independent of the fact that they hear a voice in their head and see through someone else's eyes. They both get in trouble because they talk to someone that only they can hear, but Whedon slowly delves into the idea that their real problems of low self-esteem and bad coping mechanisms are completely separate. In fact, hearing voices is the sanest thing about both of these characters.
This is a clever reversal — most movies with this sort of storyline turn the paranormal weirdness into the cause of the characters' issues, or a metaphor for them. Becky and Dylan's weird connection would be the reason why they're messed up, or else it would be a way of describing what's wrong with them in general. But here, it's almost the opposite. Being ordinary people, living in this crazy world, is what has messed these people up — and the paranormal weirdness is a lifeline, even if it causes complications.
There's a nugget of a really wonderful story in this, and Whedon does a great job of unraveling the backstories of both Dylan and Becky and showing how they became kind of broken. The bits where they realize that they've been experiencing each other's traumas, all along, are especially vivid and well observed.
Unfortunately, there a few issues, which prevent the movie from achieving its potential and keep it from being much more than a neat idea. For one thing, the film is punishingly slow — this is one case where a really good editor could have worked wonders. When the film launches into an acoustic montage of the characters staring into space just 20 minutes in, it's a bad sign.
Also, this is a story that feels constrained by genre: the "romcom" thing, in particular, feels like a straitjacket. Most of all, contrary to Whedon's reputation for sadism, a huge problem with In Your Eyes is a reluctance to torture these characters. For most of the movie's running length, Dylan and Becky are kept fairly comfortable — which gives them lots of space to bond and to talk about their pasts, but also adds to the sense of motionlessness.
Whedon has entrusted his script to relatively new director Brin Hill (Ball Don't Lie) who does a decent but not spectacular job of bringing the story to life — a lot of it feels sort of like a TV movie, for some reason. With one protagonist living in snowy New Hampshire and the other one living in New Mexico, there's lots of scope for contrasting the two landscapes, and Hill does some of that. But we never really get the sense of two people dwarfed by their surroundings.
So yeah, In Your Eyes is somewhat half-baked. You get a sense that there's a great story here, which Whedon just hasn't quite found the heart of. The conceit, by itself, isn't enough to carry a somewhat anemic story, and the characters aren't lovable enough for us to want to spend this much time watching them cook dinner. (In particular, Kazan's version of the quirky/damaged girl, along the lines of River Tam or Fred from Angel, is not nearly as adorable as Whedon seems to think she is.)
What's left is an assortment of cool moments, and some of Whedon's trademark super-quotable dialogue. There are enough clever uses of the "psychically linked" concept that you can see how it would be a good idea for a movie — but not enough development of the concept to make it feel fully inhabited. (In fact, the ending of this movie might have been the midpoint of a better movie.)
But there's a difference between a cool premise and a story, and this time around, Whedon hasn't quite made the full voyage from the former to the latter.