A companion piece of sorts to The Hours And Times, Christopher Münch's directorial debut about a fictionalized rendezvous between John Lennon and Brian Epstein, Harry And Max returns to the pop world for another provocative, novella-length film. Perhaps Münch imagines pop-star life as inherently lonely and alienating, with long tours where only those in the inner circle can reach out to each other, often in ways that would curl the pages of teen magazines. For Harry And Max, Münch attempts a perverse experiment: Take the most outrageous premise imaginable—an incestuous relationship between boy-band brothers (could be Nick and Aaron Carter, the Hansons, etc.)—and defuse it with tasteful, matter-of-fact understatement. A clever strategy, but Münch faces a daunting challenge in making the relationship convincing in its particulars, rather than just strapping two characters to an awkward conceit.
One of the film's oddest missteps is in making the boy-band gig just another occupation, instead of using it as a central way to illuminate the brothers' unusual bond. In a telling moment, the younger of the two, a 16-year-old Hanson look-alike played by Cole Williams, confesses to feeling an attraction to 24-year-old brother Bryce Johnson as early as age 7, so their subsequent stardom wasn't really a factor. Old feelings stemming from a vacation in Bermuda surface when Williams and Johnson take off for a camping weekend in the California winter, hoping to reinforce their fraying bond. It doesn't help that their career trajectories are not 'N Sync: While baby-faced Williams adorns the cover of Teen Bopper magazine, Johnson's star has fallen to all the E!-ready clichés of failed solo projects, substance abuse, and lawsuits with management. Their tense encounters at campsites and in motel rooms naturally recall long-tabled intimacies, but revelations about Williams' relationship with a 40-year-old teacher (Tom Gilroy) and their feelings for mutual confidant Rain Phoenix complicate the reunion.
While Münch's films are unimpeachably intelligent and probing, they're often plagued by an archness that's only remedied by great performances, like the stellar quartet (Jacqueline Bisset, Seymour Cassel, Martha Plimpton, and Nick Stahl) in his intricate, moving 2001 melodrama The Sleepy Time Gal. Though Williams and Johnson fit comfortably into the European naturalism that's become Münch's stock in trade, they can't quite wriggle out of his high-concept premise and become plausibly real. Too many of their actions—like, say, Johnson privately masturbating to a magazine photo of Williams—seem motivated solely by the script rather than by their troubled personal histories. Though discreetly handled as a brief sojourn outside social boundaries, Harry And Max still seems like a fantasy that doesn't connect with the culture, or anything generally resembling human behavior.