If Miranda July had worked in the past, as opposed to starring in The Future - if, say, she was alive and kicking in 1930s and '40s Hollywood - she might've been another Claudette Colbert, playing the daffy dame, the screwball muse.
There is something about July's slight build and cartoon eyes, her frailty hiding ferocity, that would have been just right in romantic romps with Clark Gable, James Stewart, Gary Cooper. What she would have done with her performance art stuff, well, what did the world do before performance art? Vaudeville, does that count?
Anyway, here she is in the very modern and mysterious The Future - a film she wrote (adapting her own performance piece) and directed, and which she stars in opposite the decidedly un-Gable-esque Hamish Linklater. She's Sophie, he's Jason, and the two of them are in a state of profound inertia. Uneasy silences drift through the couple's tiny L.A. flat, and it's all they can do to pry themselves off the couch, or the bed, or the laptop, to do something, like shop or cook or go for a walk.
On one level, The Future is about a man and a woman as unit - the entity (and entropy) of domestic partnership. This is Sophie and Jason the way none of their friends see them (although they don't seem to have many): alone together, swaddled in ennui.
But then comes Paw Paw, or, more accurately, the idea of Paw Paw. She's a stray cat that they hope to adopt, as soon as she's recovered from whatever ailment it is that's keeping her in the animal hospital. To accommodate this new creature, to be responsible for this other being in their lives (feline as stand-in for fetus), Sophie and Jason take drastic measures: They quit their jobs, they abandon the Internet.
He volunteers for some green, sustainable, plant-a-tree organization. She meets an old man (Joe Putterlik) who proudly shares the dirty poems and cards he wrote for his late wife. And then she meets another man, Marshall (David Warshofsky), a middle-aged suburbanite who couldn't be more different, and less cool, than Sophie.
Of course, she and this stranger fall into an animated sexual affair; Sophie practically moves into the house he shares with his daughter (Isabella Acres), a girl who buries herself in the garden. (Literally buries herself - the tableau is very David Lynch.)
Sophie is hiding out in this other man's home, this other man's world. Paw Paw is waiting in hers. And Jason is stuck in time.
The Future is odder and darker than July's first feature, the 2005 Sundance discovery Me and You and Everyone We Know. But it is similar in the way it portrays people who are isolated from one another, spinning in their own orbits, caroming around the universe. And July likes her rhythms to shuffle, her beats to go long. She is the master of sideways portent - the small act with big ramifications.
A meditation on mortality, on loneliness, on the way technology and narcissism have intersected to create a fascinating monster (there's a running joke about YouTube dance videos), The Future is all of this and more. What Frank Capra would have made of it, who knows? But he would have liked its star.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/