You’ll find just about every genre at Sundance, but one that’s always well represented is the Low-Budget Comedy That Will Definitely Be Rated R When It Comes Out. Here are three examples from 2015 right off the bat (and the festival is only a few days old), ranging in quality from so-so to pretty dang good.
In Cop Car, the title character is found abandoned in a field by two 10-year-old boys, whose exhilaration at such a discovery can hardly be overstated. We’ve been introduced to the boys as they walked, with light-haired Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) saying dirty words and dark-haired Harrison (Hays Wellford) repeating them. Except for the F-word, “the worst cuss,” which Harrison won’t say.
So they’re ordinary boys out exploring, the sort of kids you’d find in a Spielberg movie. Finding the cop car to play with, the keys still inside, has made this the greatest day of their lives. They take it for a spin. In their childlike enthusiasm, they don’t stop to consider that a functioning police vehicle, even one found in an unusual place, doesn’t go missing without someone coming to look for it.
That’s where Kevin Bacon comes in. Sporting a glorious law-enforcement mustache, he plays Sheriff Kretzer, a cop of dubious repute who must now find his missing car without the dispatchers and deputies knowing it’s gone, as this would lead to questions he does not wish to answer.
Thus are the elements in place for a surprisingly rich comedy, with an unexpected dash of tension and Coen Bros.-style crime fiction. Everything with the boys is fun and games: they mean no harm, and they’re driving through unpopulated ranch lands, not in any significant danger. (They are spotted by another motorist, though, played by Camryn Manheim.) Even when they pull over to play with the weapons they found in the backseat of the cruiser, we cringe, but we know nothing TOO serious is going to happen. It’s not that kind of movie.
Or is it? Directed by Jon Watts (an Onion News Network pro) and written by him and Christopher D. Ford (Robot & Frank), the film doesn’t have “twists,” per se, but it does establish a dark, suspenseful tone that it reverts to now and then, especially when we encounter a man (Shea Whigham) who has unfinished business with Sheriff Kretzer. We gradually realize that what began as an innocuous pre-adolescent comedy also functions as a crime thriller. Occasionally Watts will slow down and take his time, drawing out the tension. When it takes someone two minutes to break into a car, it’s too much. But when it’s to ratchet up suspense at the finale, one person lying in wait for another, the boys in the crossfire, silence but for the sound of a creaking windmill — I swear, it’s Sergio Leone time. In a movie that started out as a light romp about kids!
The ending is somewhat unsatisfying (we deserve less ambiguity), and the whole thing has some fat on it (like those two minutes of car-unlocking non-action). But overall, Watts’ directorial eye is sharp. The boys are natural and not actor-y, and Bacon and Whigham embrace both the comic and serious parts of their roles. Cop Car isn’t just good, it’s good in areas you wouldn’t expect a movie with this premise to be good in. Grade: B+
The perfectly serviceable premise of the sadly underdone comedy The Bronze is that a former gymnast from Amherst, Ohio, is still pathetically milking the brief, minor Olympic fame she earned in Rome in 2004, swanning around Amherst as if the Games happened yesterday (and as if she placed better than third). The film begins with the young woman in question pleasuring herself while she watches the video of her performance, so you have some idea of what you’re in for: dirty, potentially outrageous humor, and possibly a lot of instances where you’re supposed to laugh just because it’s raunchy.
The girl, Hope Annabelle Greggory, is played with go-for-broke, foul-mouthed commitment by Melissa Rauch (from The Big Bang Theory), who co-wrote The Bronze with her husband, Winston Rauch. An injury took Hope out of the gymnastics business shortly after Rome, and she’s been bitter and nasty ever since, mooching off her indulgent doofus of a father (Gary Cole), snorting crushed-up allergy pills, and frequenting any local business that still gives her discounts as thanks for the glory she brought to Amherst.
When her old coach dies, she stands to inherit $500,000 … but only if she coaches another Amherst girl, Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson) through her own Olympic trials. Maggie is excitable and naive, which annoys the saturnine and promiscuous Hope, and she is also potentially Hope’s replacement in the hearts and minds of Amherstians, which would obviously be unacceptable. On the other hand, that $500,000 sure would be nice.
Directed by TV adman Bryan Buckley (his first feature), the movie follows a familiar path of quasi-redemption for the humorously despicable character, along the lines of Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, or any of the other films about poor role models giving their charges terrible help. The problem isn’t the predictability, it’s the sloppy way the changes are brought about. Hope’s drug addiction disappears suddenly from the story once it’s no longer needed. She switches from sabotaging Maggie to helping her without any real decision-making, and without any of her sabotage ever really being funny. She mocks the twitchy gym owner, Ben (Thomas Middleditch), then softens for no reason (and why’d he ever like her in the first place?).
A creatively acrobatic sex scene between Hope and fellow medalist Lance Tucker (Sebastian Stan) is a high point, and there are deep, vulgar laughs sprinkled throughout the film. It’s a so-so comedy that feels like a first draft, an opportunity wasted. Tighten it up and you’d have beautiful gold rather than shameful bronze. Grade: C+
If there’s any message or insight to be gained from The Overnight, anything that the characters learned about themselves or that might lead us to our own personal epiphanies, I failed to grasp it. This is not necessarily a criticism, merely an observation. Even as sex comedies go, this one is slight, an 80-minute, four-character lark about a normal married couple who meet an eccentric married couple and are unsettled by their eccentricity. That’s basically it.
But it’s funny, so that helps. Funny helps everything. Stay-at-home dad Alex (Adam Scott) and working mom Emily (Taylor Schilling) have just moved to L.A., and Alex is anxious about how he’ll make new friends without a job to go to. As luck and screenplay contrivance would have it, Alex and Emily meet someone in the park that very day, a jokey fellow named Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), whose little boy plays well with theirs. Kurt invites the family to dinner at the sleek, giant home he shares with his son and wife, Charlotte (Judith Godreche), who’s French and glamorous. After dinner, they put the kids to bed, whereupon ensues hilarity.
Kurt and Charlotte are a free-wheeling, European sort of couple. Kurt fancies himself an artist, and all his paintings are of intimate body parts. Charlotte models breast pumps for graphic infomercials. They both enjoy booze and pot, and are freely affectionate with one another (and their new friends). They’re like the more cosmopolitan versions of Alex and Emily, who alternate between being amused by their hosts and being alarmed, awkward, or jealous. Kurt and Charlotte are the skinny-dipping type (of course), and a late-night swim brings out Alex’s body issues in a way not often explored this, uh, visually in comedies.
Jason Schwartzman is the movie’s MVP, playing Kurt somewhere between insincere goofball and a parody of L.A. hipster parents, often to hilarious effect. The inherently likable Adam Scott is a good foil, going for big, broad laughs when the situation calls for it but mostly staying grounded to balance out Schwartzman. Taylor Schilling (from “Orange is the New Black”) is funniest when she’s reacting to Alex reacting to Kurt and Charlotte. Judith Godreche does good “kooky,” but she seems a little lost among the other three.
Unlike many vulgarcoms, this one builds up to and earns its outrageous situations: they seem to arise naturally out of what’s been established about the characters. (I suppose it helps to have characters whose primary description is “you never know what they’re gonna do!”) The writer-director is Patrick Brice, whose Mark Duplass-starring comedy-thriller Creep premiered at SXSW in 2014. Duplass exec-produced The Overnight, and it’s often reminiscent of the low-budget indie comedies he’s been associated with. The difference is that while most of those at least attempt to have a narrative point — an answer to the question of “So what?” — The Overnight just wants to score some laughs and go home. It’s weightless and unambitious, but it definitely scores those laughs. Grade: B
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