For two weeks, the Tribeca Film Festival takes over a few theaters in New York and jam-packs them with socially conscious, bold films, many of which might never be seen or heard from again. What follows are four mini-reviews of some of the more notable comedies at the festival.
Slow Learners (dir. Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, stars Adam Pally and Sarah Burns)
Okay, so you didn’t need to travel to New York to see this movie, because everyone has seen this movie before: two friends (Happy Endings’ Adam Pally’s Jeff and Sarah Burns’ Anne) are unlucky in love, yet can’t identify that they’re perfect for each other. It takes them 96 minutes to figure this blindingly obvious fact out (this is a Rom-Com trope that could use a dash of meta). Like the so stock it might be out of stock premise, some of the jokes even feel recycled (and should’ve been left in the trash): Jeff’s parents suspect their son is gay because he can’t get a date, Jeff and Anne get their parking spot stolen and the word “retard” is used insultingly in regards to one of Jeff’s Book Club mates Lenny (Bobby Moynihan). Of course, anything that leads to Of Mice and Men references is worth the awkward journey.
Even so, Slow Learners is a pleasurable jaunt thanks to the buoyant charms of Pally and Burns. Burns in particular, is adorable, slaying with physical humor and a quiver full of terrific mannerisms. In a better movie, the Married and Enlightened star would garner Kristen Wiig Bridesmaids star-making comparisons. Regardless, if there’s any justice in the world, we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.
The movie is fearless (almost to its detriment) in how shitty they’ll make their main characters, as the second act becomes an exercise in how douchey Jeff and Anne can become when they each become cool (read: ample booze and empty hook-ups). But it ends where we think it will, and as long as comfort food is made well, it remains comforting, and Slow Learners mostly is. GRADE: B-
Applesauce (dir. Onur Tukel, stars Max Casella, Onur Tukel, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Jennifer Prediger)
Onur Tukel’s Applesauce is a cynical, post 9/11 dark comedy, when four friends (two couples) are torn asunder by a simple question over a wine-filled dinner: “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” This kicks off an increasingly absurd, hilarious and uncomfortable social experience, tied together by trashy talk show host Stevie Bricks (Dylan Baker).
Tukel’s Ron is a bombastic, hyper-intelligent, asshole of a high school teacher, who tries to teach his class empathy, and argues that America reacted poorly in the face of the tragedy of 9/11, that a “get even” mentality perpetuates a cycle of terror, oppression, greed and murder. When presented a bombshell in his own personal life, he and his wife and friends struggle to react in the humane, intelligent way that Ron proselytizes in class, paralleling that of America after 9/11.
Applesauce is such a New York movie, filled with four adults more fucked up than the children they’re supposed to be teaching. The point is clear: nobody knows what they’re doing, or talking about. Applesauce sends a bold message to the audience with an uneasy statement on life. Like many other films at Tribeca, Onur Tukel’s film presents an ultimately bleak portrait of humanity (that it’s all bullshit). It says even more about the world right now that it strikes a chord. GRADE: A-
Ashby (dir. Tony McNamara, stars Nat Wolff, Mickey Rourke, Emma Roberts, Sarah Silverman)
I’m a sucker for coming of age movies, likely because I’m in a perpetual state of coming of age myself. I romanticize every relationship as if it were my first high school love (to my detriment and self-analytical terror), and love the yearly quirky entrants into the genre.
Ashby might be one of the weirdest of all. This zany, off-kilter flick pairs the charming, stammering Michael Cera-like Nat Wolff (The Fault in Our Stars) with Mickey Rourke’s Ashby, a dying, lonely and retired CIA assassin. It has the familiar trademarks of the sub-genre: Ed’s (Wolff) a social pariah moving into a new town, he meets the manic pixie dream girl Eloise (Emma Roberts) and his family life is troubled.
Tony McNamara’s film has flaws: it’s insane tone is appreciated, but that also leads to a disjointed movie where we spend way too much time pretending to care about the least believable football subplot ever (Air Bud is more realistic) while Ed unwittingly drives Ashby to murder past associates. Outside of (or especially in) Texas, high school football is an absurd notion, and Ashby winningly parodies the culture, but it only serves to heighten our disbelief that Ed would ever dream of playing football, let alone be so naturally (and simply) good at it.
Ed is more cowardly than the Lion in Wizard of Oz, and certainly more frustrating, but like the movie, his heart is in the right place, and that always kept me on Ashby’s side. Emma Roberts has an annoying habit of playing annoying, bitchy women (and she’s certainly good at it), but as in It’s Kind of a Funny Story and here, I particular like when I can fall for her quirky, artsy side (because every guy wants the prettiest girl in school to be an unapologetic nerd). Like all great coming-of-age movies, Ashby is pure fantasy: who doesn’t want to have Mickey Rourke as your gruff mentor figure? Rourke gets to show off his insane wardrobe, and it’s unfortunate that his character being on his last legs is the most believable part of the movie (our boy looks rough), but he still delivers the goods.
Throw in an on-fire Sarah Silverman as Ed’s desperate, lonely single mother, and a blessedly self-aware plot (“You’re going to kiss me, right?”), it’s impossible not to appreciate Ashby’s wacky, all-over-the-place charms. GRADE: B+
Dirty Weekend (dir. Neil LaBute, stars Matthew Broderick and Alice Eve)
Les (Matthew Broderick) and Nathalie (Star Trek Into Darkness’ Alice Eve) are co-workers en route to Dallas for an important presentation. But their flight is forced to layover in Albuquerque due to a storm, unleashing 90 minutes of bickering, booze, secrets and glorious subtext rich banter from Broderick and Eve. Best of all? This isn’t a love story between the two main characters.
This is the finest I’ve ever seen Alice Eve, and perhaps I’m still dizzy from the great nostalgia trip of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, but this is Broderick’s best film and performance since Election.
Neil LaBute is one of the more interesting writers and directors making movies (he directed The Shape of Things and The Wicker Man), and his roots in the theater are on full display here, with what is essentially a dialogue obsessed two-actor play. And I mostly loved it, because Les and Nathalie are such great and tic-heavy characters, each on separate sex-obsessed quests to figure out what it is they really want, or are into.
The film has a bizarre, thrilling energy, despite nothing really happening until the end, with the droll, one-taxi town Albuquerque a perfect setting (it helps when the Cabbie, played by Phil Burke, deserves Best Supporting Actor at Tribeca honors).
Dirty Weekend doesn’t have any easy answers, and if anything, after the crazy events of the third act, Les is more unsure of himself and his sexuality. But his and Nat’s journey are one of the best of the festival. GRADE: A-