“The Vanishing of Sidney Hall” presents the viewer with a dilemma.
Is Logan Lerman less convincing as yet another sensitive, smart high school romantic determined to be a writer, as that writer in his late 20s, in writerly glasses sitting at his vintage typewriter tapping out his “Voice of a Generation” masterpiece, or as that writer post-burnout, fake beard, riding the rails on the run from his past?
But this meandering, messy melodrama gives you plenty of time to consider your choices. It’s a classic example of why movies about writers and their inspiration can be a trap for promising filmmakers. For every “The End of the Tour,” there are a dozen examples too much like this — soapy, sudsy and sappy, pretentious twaddle ladled out between filler scenes of typing, typing typing at a darkened desk, a single lamp beside it, cigarette smoke curling over the keys.
Lerman, saddled with “Percy Jackson,” remembered for “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Fury,” and hoping against hope that you’ll forget “Indignation,” is the title character in this absurdly cluttered film about the making and unmaking of a young writer.
Sidney is the unfiltered star columnist of his school newspaper, a put-it-all-out-there truth-teller in his English class essays, awing his classmates — some of them — and singled out by the one teacher (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who gets him.
Sidney gets fan mail from the pretty underclassman (Elle Fanning) who lives across the street, and grudging admiration from the bullying jock (Blake Jenner) who is desperate for him to realize that he’s more than he seems.
Future Sidney has a hit novel on his hands, a high-powered publisher (Nathan Lane), an impending divorce and fans who come to him at book-signings, reciting his own words back to him. He’s troubled.
“Find yourself a muse,” the publisher implores. So he does.
And then there’s Sidney after the fall, a bearded hobo riding the rails with his hound Homer, bearded, wandering into libraries and bookstores, setting fire to books and fleeing before the cops an catch him.
“The Searcher” (Kyle Chandler) is looking high and low for this Sidney.
High school Sidney is precocious, adult Sidney is by turns insipid and insufferable.
But he himself has suffered. There are clues to his makeup, the “autobiographical criticism” way we understand some writers — Hemingway, dressed in girl’s clothes by his mother WAY too far through childhood, B. Traven’s troubled labor activist history that led to “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” “Vanishing,” via “The Searcher,” aims to resolve those.
His not-quite-right mother (Michelle Monaghan), almost silent disabled father, brooding jock “friend” (not really), super sensitive, forward yet shy Pacer-driving girlfriend (Fanning), other damaged women, a long-buried (literally) “Big Secret,” all must be explored.
You could never have convinced me that the writer/director of the Oscar winning short “Curfew,” who turned that into the horrifically funny suicide interrupted by babysitting duties feature “Before I Disappear” had a picture this windy, empty and bloated in his future.
“Vanishing” is ambitious, but in every trite, pat and melodramatic way you can think of. There was promise here, which lured this top flight cast. Shawn Christensen used to be what we called “a writer/director to watch.”
But Lerman? It’s hard to think of a young actor who has had more promising roles thrust upon him, almost certainly as a second or third choice. He is an adequate actor of narrow range and limited screen spark, which partly explains why the franchise (“Percy Jackson and the Olympians”) and prestige pictures (“Indignation”) have never made it happen for him.
The dull headache that “The Vanishing of Sidney Hall” induces can’t be laid wholly at his feet. A writer-director with an unshakable grasp of the cliches of “writers movies” — from vintage typewriter to freight car, deserves that hit. Lerman is just the charisma-starved black hole at the heart of this movie, which will disappear like its title character, with only a wince to remember it by.
MPAA Rating:R for language and some sexual references
Cast: Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Lane, Kyle Chandler
Running time: 2:00