Space-travel movies from the 1950s and ’60s periodically journeyed to distant planets inhabited exclusively by women. The astronauts invariably ended up teaching the locals about human-style romance. The alien women would ask, “What is this ‘kissing’ you speak of?” and the astronauts would oblige with a demonstration, and nobody had to die in a fiery storm of ray-gun fire.
Now, I like these movies as well as anybody (more than most, actually), but I would’ve thought we’d advanced a little beyond that formula. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” changes a lot of details — the story’s set on Earth, and the aliens are the visitors — but it comes down to the same stuff: Human kissing is good, and alien women are attractive, and inter-species violence could be avoided if we all learn to hug more.
The setting is promising: England, 1977, as punk rock crash-lands in the London suburb of Croydon. We meet a trio of cheerful would-be punks.
Enn (Alex Sharp) and his buddies Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence) roam the streets, trying to make punk happen. One night, expecting to burst into a house party, they bumble into a very peculiar gathering — sort of like a mime troupe cosplaying the Teletubbies.
Despite this apparent disconnect with their Sex Pistols attitude, the lads hang in there, and some extremely strange things go down.
Enn meets a young woman, Zan (Elle Fanning), who is obviously from outer space, and they quickly go into the “What is this ‘kissing’?” scene. Amusingly, this is interrupted by Zan vomiting.
Our hero doesn’t take it personally, and for the next two days — all that Zan has left during her visit to Earth — the two go around trying to find punk activities.
The film is adapted from a story by Neil Gaiman, the prolific graphic-novelist and author of “Coraline,” and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, whose best-known movie is the tuneful “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
It may be telling that the liveliest sequence features Zan improvising a punk song at a club. Mitchell’s talent suggests he may be happiest making musicals.
Otherwise, this is an uneven film. Newcomer Sharp is a likable hero, and Fanning is convincingly spacey.
But the jokes are surprisingly square, and while Nicole Kidman should be fun as a salty club owner, her role mostly grates. And the film doesn’t get the period; for instance, I question the super-bright lighting inside Kidman’s punk club. A place like that wouldn’t have lasted a week in the Mohawk era.
‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ (2 stars)
In 1977 London, a self-styled punk rocker (Alex Sharp) falls for a visiting alien (Elle Fanning) and tries to ignore her outer-space origins. It should be fun, but this adaptation of a Neil Gaiman story is wildly uneven, with square humor and a wobbly sense of the era. With Nicole Kidman.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Opening Friday: Grand Illusion