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Young man's cougar pursuit falls flat in 'Ceremony'

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Sam Davis is easy to despise. At first glance, the 23-year-old, who fancies himself an established children's author despite his apparent lack of credentials, seems no more than the sum of his affectations — a condescending wink here, a pretentious outburst there. He sports a fledgling mustache and a regrettably garish suit. He refers to his best friend — a year-and-a-half his senior — as “kid.” And he is, in his own mind, the wittiest guy in the room.

Played by Michael Angarano, the baby-faced star of 2009's “Gentlemen Broncos,” Sam isn't exactly the hero of Max Winkler’s “Ceremony” — he's far too flawed for that — but neither is he the villain.

Looking past his arrogance and embellished life history, we find a boy pretending to be a man, throwing caution to the winds in his poorly timed pursuit of the woman he adores.

She is Zoe (Uma Thurman), a statuesque blonde too mature to be humoring suitors as young and impressionable as Sam, but like Sam’s friend Marshall (Reece Thompson, of “Rocket Science”), she is an enabler. Seduced by his writing, and the passion he wears on his sleeve, she once encouraged his romantic advances.

Now, on the eve of her marriage to Whit (Lee Pace), a “Crocodile Hunter” wannabe who shares none of her love for literature, Sam shows up to crash the wedding, intent on making off with the bride. (His unwitting accomplice, Marshall is dragged along under false pretenses, probably because he has a car and a credit card.)

If Sam seems a shade familiar, perhaps you've seen him before. He is, in word and deed, the second coming of Max Fischer, the precocious playwright from Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore.” Both yearn for older women, confusing youthful crushes with love, and both are given to temper tantrums when reality undermines plans less than thoroughly baked.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily. Winkler, a first-time feature director who acknowledges Anderson as one of his influences, makes an impressively assured debut here.

Though Sam cuts a less sympathetic figure than Jason Schwartzman’s agreeably eccentric Max, Angarano plays him with a sense of the boyish soul behind the well-rehearsed mannerisms.

Indeed, he and Thurman have scenes of such honesty and raw emotional energy that it’s almost possible to forgive “Ceremony” its sometimes sluggish pacing and its peevish protagonist. Almost, but not quite.

For all the scenes that pay off, where Winkler’s voice comes through distinctly, there are just as many that fall flat — like Sam, a victim of their own artificiality.

MOVIE REVIEW

Ceremony

??½

Starring Uma Thurman, Lee Pace, Michael Angarano, Rebecca Mader
Written and directed by Max Winkler
Rated R
Running time 1 hour 29 minutes