9 08 2016

JoshyAs predicted by myself and many people smarter than me, the so-called mumblecore movement shot to cultural prominence in the wake of 2013’s “Drinking Buddies.” These low-budget, short production films began attracting some bright talent from television and cinema. With their unscripted, improvisation style and lived-in qualities, it’s no wonder that comedians and dramatists alike rushed to appear in their own.

With a large cast featuring small screen scene stealers like Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, sketch performers like Nick Kroll and Brett Gelman, indie dream girls like Jenny Slate and Alison Brie, and even filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg themselves in front of the camera, Jeff Baena’s “Joshy” feels a bit like “Mumblecore: The Movie.” (Or at least what our culture has decided it will be today.) The simple pleasures of watching this group interact for an hour and a half cannot be understated.

Yet recent films of a similar ilk such as “Digging for Fire” felt like a hangout for hangout’s sake, with thematics tacked on and a narrative throughline threaded in as an afterthought. The conversations and group dynamics of “Joshy,” however, are baked into the films reason for existing itself. After the eponymous character suffers a tragedy that lays to waste his marital plans, his motley crew of buddies use the house reserved for his bachelor weekend as the venue and occasion for a cheer-up mission.

It quickly becomes obvious that while his trio of bros attempt to play the role of fun-loving therapists, they too are all undergoing hardcore emotional stressors of their own. Each attempts some level of macho posturing – whether in relation to booze, drugs or strippers – to mask the pain. Their buddy makes it all too easy to feel superior; the pet name Joshy suggests both femininity and childishness.

If the film feels at times meandering, it’s because Baena both admirably gives the main men space to work out their issues while also providing ample space to critique them. By being at the center of the film, Joshy and pals are inevitable magnets of symapthy and understanding. But Baena never lets the men of “Joshy” off the hook for what could come across as tunnel vision or indefensible behavior. A more “grown-up” family, played by Joe and Kris Swanberg, drops in on their retreat and delivers a pretty firm scolding. Similarly, a group of call girls makes reference to the gang as resembling creepy serial killer types. It’s a pretty satisfying way to balance the competing impulses of developing the characters and indulging the actors. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Slow Learners

12 02 2016

Slow LearnersTelevision comedy is in somewhat of a renaissance these days with premium cable and streaming giants funding some of the most radical, niche series ever seen. Too bad directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce didn’t quite get the memo as their film “Slow Learners” feels like a natural fit for that medium. The movie feels quite a bit like a comedy pilot extended to feature length.

The two main characters, Adam Pally’s Jeff and Sarah Burns’ Anne, are the perfect odd couple for a small-screen romantic comedy story. Both have their issues connecting romantically with people of the opposite sex – Jeff more for his doughy looks; Anne, her zany personality. Over summer vacation, the two high-school teachers undergo transformations to make themselves more appealing partners, with each having their successes and setbacks. Of course, anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy knows where they are really headed.

The ride to the inevitable destination has its fun moments, including some fun bit parts from underrated television actors like Reid Scott (Dan Egan from “Veep”), Kate Flannery (Meredith from “The Office”) and Cecily Strong (“Saturday Night Live”). But I could not help but wonder if these characters might make for more compelling television figures. Pally and Burns have the comedic versatility to operate on an episodic scale. Stretching them to meet a traditional narrative arc, like the one seen in “Slow Learners,” detracts from their gifts as much as it showcases them. B-2stars