“I’m not for everybody,” says Annie Clark, the artist also known as St. Vincent — though not to the limo driver who, at the beginning of Bill Benz‘s metafictional mockumentary “The Nowhere Inn,” is interrogating her accusatorily about who she is, knowing she’s famous but having never heard of her. Clark, pristinely clad in designer trench and please-leave-me-alone rock-star sunglasses, doesn’t say it to be dismissive, but rather to give the limo driver a way out of an awkward social situation. Also, it’s true: her blend of experimental art-rock electropop seasoned with just a dash of torch singer is not for everyone. But the man persists, as though Clark is at fault for his not knowing her, as though she owes him some kind of proof. He phones his kid, who runs through the whole same rigamarole on speakerphone. It’s a sprightly, witty encapsulation of many of the themes “The Nowhere Inn” sets out to explore — the contradictions of fame; the unfair expectations we place on private citizens who have a public presence; the fact that most people are dicks — though only rarely will the Sundance mock-doc really nail this tricksy, self-aware tone thereafter.
Co-written by longtime friends Clark and “Portlandia‘s” Carrie Brownstein, the film pretends to be the documentary of the making of Brownstein’s original, straight-read documentary on St. Vincent. Brownstein’s take was going to be one part concert doc, one part on-the-road tour diary and three parts expose of the “real” Annie Clark: the woman inside St. Vincent’s latex jumpsuits, the living human embedded behind the masklike perfection of her ice-sculpture cheekbones and feverish, fathomless eyes (yes, I have a crush on Annie Clark, does it show?) But early in the process, their BFF-ship is tested when Brownstein decides that offstage Annie Clark, the obliging, slightly dorky, early-to-bed-after-a-quick-game-of-Scrabble Annie Clark, is not the stuff of interesting documentaries and asks her to spice things up a bit. Clark, seemingly a bit hurt by the request, nonetheless complies and begins to incorporate aspects of St. Vincent’s domme-ish diva persona into her everyday life.
Problem is, with Clark the shy and introspective white wine spritzer version of St. Vincent’s terrifyingly judgy neat shot of designer Japanese whiskey, it’s not long before the approachable, make-up-less, “genuine” Clark disappears altogether. In her place, St. Vincent/Evil Annie slowly and surely begins to take over control of the film, increasingly sidelining Brownstein, who has her own stuff going on too (like the illness of her father — a subplot the film does not know what to do with). By the time Evil Annie is cavorting about in lingerie with her “girlfriend” (a hilariously game Dakota Johnson — yes, I know I buried the lede) and taking the crew on a tiresomely overworked trip to her fake Texas home, where she pantomimes family life amid actors dressed as designer farmhands, it’s clear the writing is on the wall not just for Brownstein’s gig as doc director, but for their friendship too.
The major irony here is that the straightforward concert footage is terrific, the lo-fi scratchy home videos of Brownstein and Clark in happier times is kinda charming and the contrast between being St. Vincent on the streets and Annie Clark in the sheets would probably have been plenty powerful and revealing enough to power the more straightforward film that both Brownstein and Clark elected not to make.
In some regards, “The Nowhere Inn” feels truthful — it does seem like a project that Clark and Brownstein might have embarked on in a more sincere and straightforward register, only to quickly abandon that approach when its limitations became clear. But getting all metatextual because you fear the original text is not interesting enough cannot by itself make things more interesting, and though there are some genuinely satirical flourishes — a scene with a bitchy, entitled journalist being one of the most pointed — mostly the film becomes an exercise in playfully dodging the real issues and swatting away anything that threatens to land on a relatable insight.
Outside its value as a cautionary tale about introducing a power dynamic into a friendship between former equals, there’s an emptiness at the heart of “The Nowhere Inn” which might be part of the point (ah, the vacuity of celebrity! the hollowness of fame!) but the observation of emptiness is not the same as actual substance. On stage and in her fabulously wide-ranging, electrifying music, Clark is a fearless artist but in this ostensibly revealing and personal movie, there’s something that amounts to a failure of nerve. For all the self-critical, broad unlikeability that Clark is willing to play up, this Russian doll approach to truth and fiction actually feels like a defensive move, a way for her to flirt with self-awareness and self-analysis without actually ever being vulnerable. Brownstein, for her part, seems content to recede from the film’s latter portions: it may all be an in-jokey act that she’s being eclipsed by the monster she’s partly created, but from the outside, the act is indistinguishable from the real thing.
“I don’t want this to just be an ordinary movie,” says Clark at one point. But the fear of being ordinary, which is the driving force behind all “The Nowhere Inn’s” flash and dazzle is maybe the most ordinary thing about the performer we know as St. Vincent and the woman we (don’t) know as Annie Clark. [B-/C+]