What is it about two attractive people yelling at each other that makes us want them to kiss? The enemies-to-lovers trope has been an important fixture of the romance genre since at least Much Ado About Nothing, working its way into iconic TV will-they-won’t-theys and fueling hundreds of thousands of fan fictions. When Sam and Diane finally kiss during the first-season finale of Cheers, a moment that changed romance on TV forever, it’s at the climax of an intense fight; Diane tells Sam, “You disgust me. I hate you,” their faces only a foot apart, to which he responds, “Are you as turned on as I am?” It’s not just that fury and desire are two sides of the same coin, equal and opposite forms of passion. In many of these cases, fury itself is inseparable from desire.
Shot on 16mm in black and white, director-writer-editor Alex Ross Perry’s 2011 film The Color Wheel is not a romantic comedy, at least at first glance. It’s a movie about siblings, with a premise reminiscent of a Sundance dramedy from the 2000s: “When a brother accompanies his estranged sister on a road trip, they rediscover how obnoxious they are together – and how much they might need each other.” But even the language there isn’t much different from a romance about two long-lost loves reconnecting. Sibling bonds can be both rage-inducing and incredibly close—and closeness comes in many forms, including desire.
The brother, played by Perry himself, is the mumble-y Colin, who lives a stable but unexciting life writing copy for focus group presentations instead of putting work into a more fulfilling writing career. And his sister, played by co-writer Carlen Altman, is the adventurous but flighty JR, an aspiring broadcast journalist and college dropout whose need to move out of her toxic professor ex-boyfriend’s house kicks off this story. With their opposing lifestyles, the two make for natural foils—but it’s their shared unhappiness that allows them to realize how alike they actually are. JR’s ex Neil (Bob Byington) sums it up: “Someone should write a case study about you guys. Like you, the victim of circumstance. You, the victim of yourself…One barely able to seek and maintain the attention of a male, the other a pathetic wreck of post-graduate stereotyping.”
Those archetypal clashes and unlikely similarities make for a good story about siblings reconnecting later in life, but they’re also good ingredients for a romantic comedy. In fact, as strange as the comparison may seem, what works well for a standard enemies-to-lover arc can accomplish the same in a reconnecting-siblings arc. Siblings argue, even (or especially) the close ones, and creating chemistry in that sniping can be just as critical to a movie like The Skeleton Twins as it is to a rom-com like You’ve Got Mail. In both genres, you need two performers with a natural and easy chemistry that conveys intimacy and comfort, even when they’re at each other’s throats.
Of course, in The Color Wheel, Perry very intentionally steers into the tension between his two leads. If you’ve seen the movie, there’s likely one scene that sticks out in your mind more than the rest: a nine-and-a-half-minute handheld shot near the end, during which Colin and JR’s first truly sincere conversation leads to them having sex. It’s a bold ending, and far more interesting than the shallowly provocative shock moment it might appear to detractors.
The movie seeds the idea of stealth-romantic-comedy from the beginning, slowly preparing us for the direction this movie will eventually take. From the outset, Perry and Altman present us with two siblings who share a distinct, fluid way of interacting, mercilessly belittling each other in a way that points to some element of closeness, even if the two have rarely spoken in recent years. Maybe Colin and JR were once close, or maybe the most significant interactions they ever shared were in passing: brief eye contact across the dinner table in reaction to a faux pas from their dad, perhaps, or taunts near the lockers as JR’s attractive friends teased a chubby high-school Colin. Regardless, there’s a history here, a shorthand built from years living in the same house.
I recognize parts of my own relationship with my sister in Colin and JR, as weird as that sounds. I only visit home a few times a year, but when I do, Sabrina and I always effortlessly slip back into our specific way of conversing, riffing in a lexicon that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, even our parents. We frequently anticipate what the other is thinking, and there’s a certain freedom to tell the edgiest, most extreme version of every joke. We only occasionally talk about serious subjects, but in many ways I feel like Sabrina knows me better than anyone else. She’s seen me at my most unhinged.
The Color Wheel twists that type of sibling telepathy into something romantic. From the outset, Perry and Altman drop moments into the script that would feel at home in a traditional rom-com. JR is positioned as both an old fixture in Colin’s life and an exciting new force he might need to jar himself out of his complacency, whisking him away on an adventure and potentially endangering his current relationship with Zoe (Ry Russo-Young). And like the starter girlfriend in many a rom-com, Zoe is personality-free, almost devoid of any real character traits besides the suspicion and borderline jealousy with which she regards JR. It’s clear that this relationship has been running on empty for a while now—and JR ribs Colin about it whenever she gets the chance.
Early references to sex between the leads also come early; only ten minutes in, the two are “forced” to kiss on the lips to gain entry to a married-couples-only motel, leading Colin to vomit. (“The sad thing is, you’re not the first boy to throw up after kissing me,” JR remarks.) Not long after, JR invites Colin into the cramped motel bathroom to assess her new outfit, noting his discomfort and asking, “What, haven’t you ever seen a pair of beautiful bosoms before?” in a put-on, vaguely Transatlantic-adjacent accent. When she asks for her brother’s help fastening her shirt, it leads to the first moment of unambiguous sexual tension, a rare moment of silence as Colin’s fingers travel up her back.
But it’s not just the acknowledgment of a sexual element that conjures the idea of sibling soulmates; it’s the way these two are able to accurately diagnose each other’s problems to a tee, cutting through the bullshit and coping mechanisms with which they both typically surround themselves. When Colin insists that he’s doing something interesting with his life, for example, JR shoots back, “No, you’re not, you’re doing something you’re ‘okay’ with doing.”
In fact, most of the movie is an almost-constant roast session on both sides, with neither sibling pulling any punches. Like many of Perry’s other protagonists—Philip from Listen Up Philip and Becky from Her Smell come to mind—they’re both incredibly abrasive people. Colin is prone to an edgelord brand of racism that wouldn’t feel out of place on Red Scare; JR’s reliance on irony and kooky voices serves as a paper-thin disguise for her own self-loathing. It doesn’t always make for breezy viewing; the sheer cruelty on both sides can be suffocating, especially without the relief of Colin and JR truly softening toward each other in the first hour. But the script’s caustic wit keeps it from being downright unpleasant; at one point, for example, Colin tells JR she wasn’t invited to their Aunt Connie’s funeral because she would’ve been “a downer.” There’s even something hilarious about the insufferable Neil, who tells JR that dating her felt like babysitting, only to moments later express, “I’d rather this experience end on a positive note so I could harbor some sort of nostalgia for our situation.”
There are flickers of warmth and connection, almost startling when they come, like the transition of Colin and JR splashing water at each other on the street as they while away a long afternoon. The big question here is this: to what end? Perry isn’t aiming to make a rom-com about siblings just for the hell of it, though the movie does work as a wicked subversion of a certain type of schmaltzy family drama. What’s driving this seismic shift for the siblings, more than anything else, is a deep loneliness. It’s a desperation for connection, for some assurance that this isn’t all there is. With JR’s relationship dead and her journalistic dreams seemingly farther from her grasp than ever, she is profoundly alone. And while Colin at least has the support of his parents and Zoe, neither are a comfort to him. They just emphasize how stuck he is, mired in a life he can’t seem to find a way to escape, even though at his age the world should be his oyster.
That’s the type of existence Perry and Altman feared, as they discussed in an interview at the time, and it’s one I think about sometimes. What barely-employed writer or artist in their twenties doesn’t occasionally consider the stable life they could be choosing instead of this one?
There’s a common catalyst for this type of quarter-life crisis, an old staple of post-grad ennui: seeing people you knew back in the day and comparing every aspect of your lives, from careers to relationships. Encountering somebody you used to know is like running into your old self; you can’t help but feel the desire to prove how far you’ve come since that earlier version. Even if you aren’t consciously weighing up your accomplishments against someone else, you sometimes find yourself engaging in an unintentional game of one upmanship.
Colin and JR experience this at a party where they both get humiliated in different ways by their old classmates. JR is badgered about her confusing lifestyle by her improbably successful hometown friends, who repeatedly condescend by marveling at her quirkiness. When she finds herself in the hot seat and impulsively lies to everyone about being a nurse, it makes clear how ill-suited JR is to the line of work she’s ostensibly drawn to. (“It’s way harder than it looks on TV,” she assures her contemporaries after repeatedly butchering a brief news anchor impression.)
Her brother has more luck, once he shakes loose the bully who has spent the evening antagonizing him. The whole reason Colin came here was to hook up with his high school crush, and he does manage to pull it off—but in the end he only lets it go so far. He even throws up afterward, an unsettling parallel to his earlier reaction. Perhaps it’s because making out with Kim (Anna Bak-Kvapil, today Perry’s real-life wife) doesn’t actually offer anything beyond what it represents: there’s no genuine connection here, only Colin’s immature attachment to the idea of redeeming his old loser self by winning over a past infatuation.
By the time Colin and JR crash at their grandparents’ cabin, they’re at their most emotionally raw, too drained to keep their guards up and maintain their carefully-manicured ironic personas. Colin is even vulnerable enough to ask his sister if he comes across like those other squares, the normie partygoers whose dedication to their careers superficially resembles his own. It’s eye-opening to hear JR’s real, sincere voice as she admits that “having an unpredictable life is overrated,” reassuring him he has nothing to worry about. There’s no more relentless mocking, no need to tear apart every sentence or awkward phrasing just to get one over on her brother. Both understand that it’s them against the world: “We’re special. They’re, like, ‘normal.’”
Newly aligned, the two continue to connect, admitting what they actually care about. Colin’s confession that he’d like to be a teacher prompts JR to remind him of his usual scorn for teachers; this time, her hole-poking comes from a place of curiosity, not criticism, and it leads Colin to note, “Boy, you really remember exactly what I said.” The conversation slowly, inevitably works its way back to sex, with J. admitting to sniffing their mom’s vibrator (itself another subtle invocation of incest). The moment that clinches their fates is when they close their eyes, JR verbally fantasizing about some imaginary future where Colin is an inspirational professor who sleeps with an admiring student—an idea that turns both of them on.
On first watch, I was struck by how Sean Price Williams, Perry’s regular cinematographer, forces us to exist in this moment with the characters, pushing in until their faces fill the screen. We can’t escape the truth of what’s happening. After I finished the movie, I emerged from my bedroom in a sort of daze, not knowing how to feel. As I talked to my roommates about other things, the movie stuck in the back of my head.
I grew to recognize where that emotional confusion came from—especially on repeat viewings—and it’s not from being disturbed by what I saw; it’s from being moved by it. The most uncomfortable aspect of this objectively wrong turn is actually how natural it feels. The movie has primed us for the moment, even if we didn’t quite believe Perry would go there. We’ve been craving the catharsis of honesty, and for the first time in the film, we actually get it.
Every detail of the almost ten-minute shot feels just right, like the fact that JR’s fantasy rests on a casual kindness we’ve never actually seen Colin display. It’s also telling that this is the way she describes her own fantasy stand-in: “She looks so ready and fun, and like a good person. She’ll be a success, and you guys get each other, which is so rare. And it just, I don’t know. It just makes sense.” Never mind that this imaginary dynamic is lopsided and ethically problematic. She wishes the promising young woman could be her—not JR, but Jeannette, the woman she saw herself becoming when she was a kid.
In Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” she writes, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 A.M. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” Maybe that’s what makes lifelong sibling bonds both so powerful and so fragile: this person has known you at every stage, which makes them a living record of every growth and every regression. And yet just by being there—by still loving and, just as importantly, understanding you—they make it possible to reconcile every version of yourself.
In the morning, neither Colin nor JR explicitly acknowledges what happened, and both return to their lives, permanently changed by this unspeakable act, yet seemingly resigned to complacency. That may be for the best—it’d be difficult to frame a brother and sister “getting together” as a truly happy or satisfying resolution, like in a proper rom-com, even if it “just makes sense.” After all, Colin and JR’s connection is only possible because they’ve both thoroughly humiliated themselves and exhausted hope that they’ll ever find anyone else who truly gets them. Through that lens, the sex scene is simultaneously a darkly funny subversion of expectations and a tragic moment: these two sad adults resort to extreme transgression in order to feel something, but also are clinging desperately to the familiar. That’s what incest represents, really: transgression crossed with familiarity on a DNA level.
And yet! After showing us JR crying in her car and Colin sharing a passionless, open-eyed hug with Zoe, the movie ends with a split-second shot of his door opening back up, suggesting Colin could come back for his sister. As the sweet tones of The Lovelites’ “Is That Loving In Your Heart” play over the credits, we’re left to ponder what exactly we want that stinger to mean. Is the best-case scenario here that Colin and JR achieve a new level of familial closeness while never acknowledging that one slip-up again? Is it that they risk public shame forever by actually trying to strike up some sort of real romantic relationship? Is it that they never speak to each other again?
I have to say that that last possibility doesn’t feel good to consider, even though it could very well be the healthiest option. That’s part of the beauty of this complicated, disarming conclusion: as startled as we might be in witnessing the breaking of an age-old taboo, there’s some part of us that longs for a bit of hope wherever we can find it. The anger that we see between Colin and JR for most of the movie might not immediately read as “sexy” the same way as, say, a verbal joust between Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn does. But it points to a closeness that means something, even if it isn’t healthy.
Is Alex Ross Perry arguing for the normalization of incest in The Color Wheel? Surely not. But by presenting us with two people we know should not get together, only to make their union feel perfectly inevitable, he’s challenging our ideas about what we look for in other people—and what those connections say about us. That it feels both nightmarish and romantic is the point.