For the first 45 minutes or so, “Creative Control” looks like the little movie that could. We’re somewhere in the hipster precincts of New York, office-loft division, and, while the camerawork is a creamy black-and-white, we can tell we’re about two steps into the future because everyone’s cellphone is a tablet of clear plexiglass. The work stations have evolved, too, and the PowerPoint presentations have gone hologram.
The office is an ad agency, cutting-edge and soulless, and David (Benjamin Dickenson) is a creative; he’s less Don Draper and more a bearded update on one of Jack Lemmon’s old schnooks. His crass blowhard of a boss (Gavin McInnes) puts him on a new account, a pair of virtual-reality glasses that might be the next permutation in our rush to become fully-connected meatware. David’s assignment is to wear the glasses for a week or so and see what happens.
Would you be surprised that he uses them for unwise sexual purposes? “Creative Control” is, and that’s when you realize the movie isn’t nearly as clever as it looks.
Still, it looks pretty clever. Dickenson is also the film’s director and co-writer (with Micah Bloomberg), and he’s an engaging presence before David starts heading unbelievably off the deep end of his obsessions. The hero is living with his girlfriend, Juliet (Norah Zehetner), a sweet-faced yoga instructor with neuroses of her own, but he’s hung up on Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), the bohemian better half of his best friend Wim (Dan Gill), a boorish fashion photographer.
The magic goggles allow David to digitally map Sophie’s face onto a sexy avatar-body, which appears to him, and him alone, as a flesh-colored binary femme fatale. “Creative Control” thus joins Spike Jonze’s “Her,” the TV series “Black Mirror,” and other modern media artifacts in teasing apart the threads of our wired wonderworld — how we can surround our hearts and bodies with electronic ghosts and be more alone than ever.
Dickenson just isn’t able to finesse his tale as well. Even after establishing David as a panicky wreck addicted to his morning Xanax chewables and evening booze, the movie doesn’t dramatize his ensuing breakdown so that it makes sense or generates much sympathy. As the hero falls apart, so does “Creative Control.”
There’s some good dark satire along the way, of self-absorbed New Yorkers, yoga creeps, workplace facial hair, and the ways technology can enable our worst impulses before we ever get to the better ones. The musician-rapper-comedian-conceptualist Reggie Watts plays an outsize version of himself as a downtown artiste tasked with making a commercial about the VR glasses; it’s hilariously unwatchable. The ad shoot for an anti-anxiety e-cigarette called Phalinex is a hoot. To date, Dickenson has made mostly shorts; and his filmmaking energy works in spurts, too.
“Creative Control” looks great on a minuscule budget, with camerawork (by Adam Newport-Berra) that uses the windowed angles of its high-rise apartments and offices to separate the characters from each other. It’s a world in which we can still see the people we love but have forgotten how to touch them. The soundtrack is filled with the orderly glories of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel even as the hero’s emotions go ker-splooey. In fact, almost everything about the film works except the central device of David being the first user of the VR glasses to discover its kinkier uses. Doesn’t Dickenson know that our new toys get strapped to our oldest urges before they even leave the lab?
Directed by Benjamin Dickenson. Written by Dickenson and Micah Bloomberg. Starring Dickenson, Norah Zehetner, Alexia Rasmussen, Dan Gill, Reggie Watts. At Kendall Square. 102 minutes. R (violent images and language).