'The Square' film review: Bloated, biting jab at art snobs flirts with greatness
One time an affluent man had his phone stolen. He meets a girl with a bonobo. Then a crazy YouTube clip goes viral. None of this has to make "sense" in the strictest sense of the word, but the average moviegoer will not tolerate the winding, wandering plot or the nearly two-and-a half-hour runtime of the esoteric Swedish drama "The Square" (which screened at the 2017 Tacoma Film Festival and opens in theaters Oct. 27).
"The Square" earns an overall passing grade simply because its major sequences are pretty brilliant. Even its connective tissue - fleeting, wryly observant moments - are cutting, eviscerating swipes at affected artists and the modern art form. But "The Square" excels in its methodically paced, painfully awkward and ridiculously surreal set pieces: whether it's a primal performance artist who takes his art a bit too far or a condom tug-of-war. The introductory interview between the curator and a reporter (Moss) is intensely cringey and painful to endure - watching him try to worm his way through her basic questions sends shivers down the spine.
Neither supporting characters Moss nor Notary have much screentime, but each throws havoc into the curator's egocentric world. Moss has the most darkly weird comical moments of the film, as her character worms deeper into the curator's closed off world. And Notary's insane performance is so absurd that it's featured on all the film's one sheets - a primal performance artist (who has done motion capture work for the new 'Planet of the Apes' series) inflicting his craft upon society's one-percent, who simply do not know how to process his performance.
All the said, the whole of "The Square" is less than the sum of its parts. With a few too many threads to follow, the film wanders somewhat aimlessly as it tries to tie together the curator's separate plot threads, which include his missing phone, new exhibit, his obligations to his family and his personal relationships. And at almost two and a half hours, "The Square" is only for the most patient audience - people who can endure a winding tale of such a personal and muted downward spiral.
"The Square" is too ambitious for its own good. Writer-director Ruben Östlund ("Force Majeure") tries to satirize too many aspects of the curator and his elitist art world - rather than telling a focused story about one man. Whole sections of the film - like two men in a car singing along to a Justice song - could be truncated or removed entirely and the film would flow much more naturally. Too many scenes just go on for too long - the cumulative effect being the film often loses momentum. Everything just takes too long to unfold - even some of the film's very best scenes go on for a beat or two too long. This film could have successfully made fools of all its high-minded art aficionados even if it was leaner and edited with more discipline.
Final verdict: A half hour could have been cut out of this film and improved it several times over. "The Square" has a brilliant and wry core - but one that is buried beneath a string of empty moments that keep this good film from being great.
"The Square" screened at the Tacoma Film Festival. This Swedish drama has a running time of 142 minutes and is rated R for language, some strong sexual content, and brief violence.