Movie review: “Losing Control”April 25, 2012
Losing Control, a new romantic comedy from writer/director Valerie Weiss, is about a talented, driven Ph.D. student striving for clarity in the lab, where her preliminary success has not proven replicable, and in her personal life, where she declines a marriage proposal from her long-term boyfriend in favor of an experiment to determine whether he is indeed “the one.”
For me, a satisfying aspect of seeing this movie was that it cleared up several confusing aspects of the trailer. Why does Samantha (Sam) get submerged in that giant vessel? What’s the naked guy doing in her lab? How does SHE wind up naked in her lab? Why is she whispering to the cab driver? What does the dude in the white tank top yell at her? (“Get out, you station-checking freak!”)
Alas, I had hopes beyond seeing these questions answered. Above all, I was hoping for a protagonist who is really smart (and, since this is a romantic comedy, likable and funny). But we know that Sam is brilliant mostly because we are told that she made superconducting candy as a kid, she’s a grad student at Harvard, etc. etc. Few of her lines really convey the sense of a gifted analytical mind at work, as with, say, Ellie Arroway in Contact or Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. When her adviser absurdly instructs her to scale up her production of a protein that has failed to yield the desired results for the past four years, she complies unquestioningly. While there are significant power issues in a male adviser/female advisee relationship, especially when the adviser is a jerk, shouldn’t someone of Sam’s tenacity and brainpower have made a counterargument against this ludicrous plan? In portraying Sam’s clever escape from a mental hospital, silly pseudoscience is substituted for genuine ingenuity. And when she asks to sit in the rear of a plane because passengers there are more likely to survive a crash, she comes across as more neurotic than smart.
More generally, the film seems uncertain of Sam’s personality. An A.V. Club review says that it “portrays her half the time as a scatterbrained ditz who falls into a vat of her own chemicals while trying to answer her cell phone, and the other half as an OCD-inflicted Asperger’s sufferer who insists on applying logistical reason [sic] to everything.” I don’t quite agree, but there is a consistency problem.
Some of the other characters seem like one-note caricatures. Sam’s mom is superstitious and meddlesome; her labmates are a bumbling coward and a Chinese guy who doesn’t speak recognizable English; and various date options are easily described in two words or less (exhibitionist artist, polyamorous guy, rude yuppie, etc.). Slightly more interesting is Sam’s vain best friend Leslie, who resembles Shannon Rutherford from Lost (as played by Maggie Grace) in both appearance and personality. The most believable character is Sam’s boyfriend Ben, an East Asian Studies scholar who at times appears to grasp the nature of science as well as Sam. It is he who is given the line paraphrasing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as it applies to their relationship: “the act of measuring something [e.g., the trueness of love] changes it.”
The question of the extent to which logical reasoning and empirical research can or should be applied to romance is a fascinating one, and I wish the movie had explored it in greater depth, rather than veering off into a slapstick subplot of international espionage. The film was written and rewritten over several years, and I can’t help but wonder how faithful the final product was to the original idea. Still, if you want to see a movie that looks like it was shot in a real laboratory and includes a bunch of science- and academia-specific inside jokes, you may enjoy “Losing Control,” as I did in spite of myself. Weiss herself earned a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard, and this is evident in nicely rendered details such as the lax observance of food-in-the-lab rules and the semi-bribing of thesis committee members with food. I just wish these details added up to more than a knowing chuckle here and there.