On Tuesday morning, much-beloved Avengers director Joss Whedon dropped a whole new movie on the Internet. In Your Eyes, a paranormal romance executive-produced and scripted by Whedon and directed by Brin Hill, is now available for a 72-hour rental on Vimeo for $5, making this the first movie we’ve reviewed that we can actually embed directly into the review so that you can see whether or not you agree. (Me, I watched it from the Huffington Post. Don’t judge.)
The decision fits Whedon’s love of quick side projects and fascination with finding new ways to get his work to his fans. When barred from for-profit work during the 2008 writer’s strike, he knocked out the web series Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and during a break from making The Avengers, he filmed a stylish black-and-white Much Ado About Nothing with friends. The direct-to-streaming-video approach — also taken by the Veronica Mars movie—seems like another smart move, a great way to get a smaller, less box-office-friendly project past the hurdle of distribution and into the hands of its all-but-guaranteed cult audience.
In Your Eyes, however, has not yet set the Internet on fire like Doctor Horrible or Much Ado. Which raises another, unpleasant possibility: Maybe Whedon was just trying to release the project as quietly as possible so that no one would notice it. As a long-time Whedon fan and defender, it pains me to admit this. But, on the very long list of Whedon films and TV shows I’ve watched in my lifetime, In Your Eyes has got to rank somewhere near the bottom.
So: Let’s begin with the plot. Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) is the housewife to a highly insensitive doctor in New Hampshire, who executes much of her daily life with a birdlike/childlike vulnerability that’s a bit Manic Pixie Dream Girl and a whole lot Yellow Wallpaper. Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is a rough-and-tumble ex-convict living in New Mexico, whose rugged working-man sensuality is subtly conveyed by country music whenever he appears, and also, a constant proximity to pick-up trucks and pool halls. Since these two were children, they’ve shared a peculiar affliction: When one of them is injured, the other one feels pain. Shortly after one such incident, they find themselves humming the same country song (damn it, Dylan! Broaden your interests!) and figure out that they can hear each other, too. And feel each others’ non-painful sensations. And, yes, see through each other’s eyes. They quickly accept the fact of each others’ existence, and — partly out of curiosity, partly out of mutual loneliness — begin to strike up conversations. These conversations turn, inevitably, to romance. And, yes, at some point the full implications of “being able to feel each other’s physical sensations” dawn on them, resulting in what is perhaps the most long, loving, tenderly lit and romantically soundtracked shot of a man sticking his hand into his underpants that I have ever seen in a motion picture.
And this is where we are obliged to discuss the shortcomings. For one thing: These two share physical sensations, not telepathy, meaning that they can speak to each other at any time or place, but they have to do so by speaking aloud. For a moment, during their first conversation, Rebecca does the smart thing and picks up her cell phone. Ah, I thought. She’ll pretend she’s on the phone. There’s how they’ll resolve the plausibility issue. But then, within a second, she puts it away and continues merrily chattering to thin air, which she and Dylan proceed to do throughout the movie. Considering that Rebecca in particular is supposed to have a deep-rooted and overwhelming fear of being locked in a psych ward, her tendency to carry on loud, involved, one-sided conversations in the middle of coffee shops — or to do things like run through the street, screaming “STOP IT! STOP IT! NO, NO, NO, YOU’RE IN MY HEAD” — can’t strike the viewer as anything but a sign of her stupidity, or the movie’s laziness, or both. And the fact that neither Rebecca nor Dylan ever attempts to explain the situation to any of the people threatening to fire, hospitalize, or otherwise penalize them for talking to themselves — “sorry, it turns out I have superpowers, let’s find some way to demonstrate that I can actually see things across the country, like maybe a blind test using Skype” — turns the whole shebang into what Roger Ebert called an Idiot Plot, one kept in motion solely by the characters’ commitment to never making a remotely smart decision.
Then, there’s the romance itself. Which is not precisely one for the ages. Whedon’s status as a feminist filmmaking icon is a subject of much debate: I have friends who believe Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest pro-girl statement television has yet produced, and I have friends who think the man does feminism badly when he does it at all. Some of us love Whedon’s skill at creating strong, whip-smart, funny women who triumph against impossible odds; others think that his politics run toward bumper-sticker glibness, that he’s woefully bad at handling intersectionality issues, and that he is, maybe, just a little bit too interested in wee, adorable teenage girls. Speaking only for myself, I’ve always found the debate a little overblown: The man makes comic-book movies for a living. He’s not going to resolve all of the problems currently facing our gender, and honestly, we shouldn’t expect him to. It’s not as if we’re incapable of doing the work ourselves.
That said, it was still disappointing to see him slide so very firmly into traditional gender roles and rom-com cliches with In Your Eyes. Rebecca is fluttery, delicate, little-girlish, easily moved to tears, perpetually in need of rescue: The Girl. Dylan is rugged, roguish, good with his hands, slightly dangerous: The Boy. Dylan teaches Rebecca to fix a car engine; Rebecca teaches Dylan to forswear his life of crime. Rebecca gets the teary scenes of pathos; Dylan gets all the best jokes. Rebecca civilizes Dylan; Dylan rescues Rebecca. It’s not that the movie is an affront to feminism so much as that it just doesn’t acknowledge feminism’s existence. These roles could have been written 50 years ago, or more, and nothing need change. And given Whedon’s gift for female characters, it was a visceral letdown to see Rebecca, in particular, turn out to be such a wet noodle, particularly in the movie’s climax. Whedon used to give us girls who could save the world; this time around, he gives us a girl who can’t even save herself without her boyfriend pumping step-by-step instructions into her head.
I can think of potential fixes for In Your Eyes. Maybe more style could have saved it. I’ve barely spoken about director Brin Hill, for example, and that’s not just because I’m unfamiliar with his style (this is his second feature film, after the 2008 Ball Don’t Lie) but because he doesn’t really seem to have one. The movie’s look is not just made-for-Internet, but made-for-TV. Maybe if Whedon had directed the thing himself and put to use his fantastic feel for actors, he could have inspired Kazan to put more spine in Rebecca and Stahl-David to give Dylan more dimension behind his aw-shucks drawl. Or maybe the script needed a more judicious edit. Rebecca’s cartoonishly insensitive husband — he’s introduced yelling at his wife for having a seizure — could have been given some scenes that made him look like a plausible romantic rival, so that we’re not anticipating Rebecca and Dylan’s inevitable union from the very first second they’re introduced. The vague superpowers — the characters insist they don’t have telepathy, but also seem to feel each other’s emotions at some points, so “empathy” may or may not be on the table — could have been re-written into something with more internal logic. Everyone could have stopped, for a second, and asked if they really wanted to include a lengthy shot of Michael Stahl-David reaching into his underpants.
A lot of things could have been better, but at this point, it’s a lost cause. In Your Eyes is what it is, and what it is has been getting panned roundly by every critic who bothers to write it up. It’s not just a disappointment because it’s bad; it’s a disappointment because we all know that Whedon can do much, much better. But then, he’s a busy man. And you never know when there will be another surprise project to turn things back around.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.