When I was younger I thought that the words "ambivalent" and "apathetic" were interchangeable. It was an understandable mistake - they both express a certain lack of enthusiasm. However, now that I'm older I see that there's a world of difference between being divided about how you feel about something and not feeling anything at all, because one seems like the proper response for life's big issues and the other is a better fit for life's little problems. Capitalism, democracy, technology, parenthood - they all have tremendous upsides and terrible downsides, and as such we should have mixed feelings about them. Running late for a meeting, getting bad service at a restaurant, dealing with a rude person - those are all situations that seem important at the time but which won't mean anything in the long term, so we should have a certain distance from them.
I was thinking about that distinction because I just saw A.C.O.D., which is a recent-ish indie comedy that really wanted to be bittersweet. "Bittersweet" necessarily implies that something is giving off two contradictory emotions at the same time, and as such bittersweet movies generally aim to make their audience feel ambivalent - they offer highs and lows at the same time. However, A.C.O.D. wanted to mine laughs from frustrating big situations the same way it would mine laughs from frustrating small situations, but that's not how "bittersweet" works; you can't treat those things as if they were interchangeable, because those different situations come with differing levels of emotional impact.
A.C.O.D. is about a repressed man named Carter whose parents' divorce was so bitter that it ruined his entire childhood. When Carter's younger brother announces that he is getting married Carter realizes that he is going to have to try to get the two of them to mend their relationship or else their drama will upstage the upcoming wedding. Unfortunately, his plan works a bit too well and they suddenly start rutting like rabbits, putting their current marriages in jeopardy and severely weirding Carter out.
Now, there are two separate movies buried in that plot description. There's one movie about two self-absorbed monsters who couldn't see past their own problems long enough to raise a healthy child, and that's a fundamentally heavy movie with some comedic potential, because it's about the sort of emotional damage you can forgive but not forget. There's also a second movie in there, one that's built around sitcom-level shenanigans about unlikely partners having sex in unlikely places, and that's something that should be treated with a certain amount of apathy, because who gives a shit what caricatures like this do?
Honestly, I can't imagine any scenario where A.C.O.D. would be a great movie; both the serious version and the silly version sound kind of weak to me since they are built around such petty and unlikeable characters, and since they are aiming to explore emotional territory that I think is pretty well trod at this point. However, if it had picked one path or the other then it wouldn't have been nearly so unpleasant to watch. Sure, the dramatic version of this story would have been boring, and the comedic version of this story would have been over the top, but this "bittersweet" version was the worst of both worlds, too miserable to be funny and too goofy to be taken seriously.
The worst part about A.C.O.D. is that I think it is indicative of a certain sickness that has crept into indie filmmaking. Studio movies generally decide whether they are going to be a comedy or a drama and then they stick with the established formula for their chosen genre, but would-be indie auteurs seem to have rejected that convention. I'm guessing that they want to alternate between humor and heartbreak because that gets closer to simulating "real life", but those genre restrictions are there for a reason. Dramas and comedies that stick closely to their genre formulas might be predictable, but they are at least dependable, while movies that are trying to be "realistic" are only good if they are well executed. Sadly, most indie films end up in the failure pile with A.C.O.D. because they aren't executed well enough to serve either of their masters. It's better to have a film which doesn't excite anyone than to have a film that doesn't please anyone.
My life has been much easier ever since I learned to differentiate between situations that call for ambivalence and situations that call for apathy. Of course, sometimes a situation calls for both responses. If we look at A.C.O.D. by itself then the correct response is apathy: it was a film that tried to entertain me but failed. If we look at A.C.O.D. as a representative example of an entire genre of filmmaking then the correct response is ambivalence: I can respect the ambition that these filmmakers have, and when it works it really works, but more often than not it's created some truly terrible art. However, I must say that there's another part of me that thinks that the correct response to this movie is neither ambivalence nor apathy. After all, if I had seen this movie when I was younger my response would not have been that nuanced - it would have just been to say "well, this sucked." And you know what? That's not wrong.
Winner: The Cat