What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Shaka King
Produced by: Shaka King, Jim Wareck, Michael Matthews, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Starring: Amari Cheatom, Trae Harris, Tone Tank, Colman Domingo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Adrian Martinez
Running Time (in min.): 87 minutes
Language: English, Spanish
Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
An obsession with marijuana never left anyone in a good place, but it’s made endearing the schlubby messes that were once Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and the Potbellied Apatow Gang. There’s a revolution at hand in Shaka King’s first feature, Newlyweeds, to destabilize the marketplace flooded with curly-headed, overweight goofs as their heroes. Instead, King asks us to find care in our hearts for Lyle and Nina, a black couple whose relationship hits the fan when one’s pseudo-addiction to grass becomes closer to a pseudo-love.
King, who wrote and directed, lucked out with the impossibly (I don’t use that word lightly – here, it’s a truly peculiar phenomenon) charismatic Amari Cheatom, who turns Lyle’s laziness, slovenliness, and stupidity into the qualities of the desirable Everyman. Nina [first-timer Trae Harris,] whom Lyle seems to really love, is the more dynamic of the two: looking somewhere between Ani DiFranco and an even wider-eyed, young Whoopi Goldberg, she’s got personality to spare. What Nina sees in Lyle, besides his access to mid-quality weed, is never made clear; in that way, at least, Cheatom and Rogen don’t seem so different.
Nor, for that matter, does King’s plotting from Apatow’s first two films, though his sense of dialogue, social rhythm, and interaction strike closer to the quality Tim Story achieved with the remarkable Barbershop (2002). It’s not just that the Brooklyn neighborhood of Newlyweeds is entirely (and impressively) composed of people of color, but rather that they look and talk like real folks doing nothing else but those things. Lyle and his obnoxious partner Jackie (Tone Tank) have jobs collecting furniture from people, like Hernan (dependably uproarious Adrian Martinez, overdue for his Richard Jenkins-in-The-Visitor moment,) who forgot to pay their monthly dues. Nina has a little more education, style, and drive – so she supports their expensive habits and dinky Brooklyn apartment with a docent job at a local museum.
It’s at this museum that the catalyst for conflict comes into these sweet lovers’ lives in the form of Chico, played as an imposing yet seductive dandy by Colman Domingo. Chico is less of a man than an aesthetic: decked out in hipster glasses, leather briefcase in tow to his curatorial office job, he radiates a combination of confidence and pretention. Nina likes that – or thinks she does – and chooses not to admit it to the suspicious Lyle, or to herself for that matter. And so Domingo’s character starts to represent something a little more than a new romance. He becomes, for the attracted Nina and the aggravated Lyle, a symbol of ambition to live a better life.
The novelty of a comic stoner drama with African-American leads is not lost on me, and the fact that King managed to make the film at all – with Gbenga Akinnagbe and himself as producers alongside Michael Matthews and Jim Wareck – speaks to the racial historicity of this year in film culture. It seems appropriate, though unlikely, that Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station finds its most genuine companion piece in Newlyweeds (though if you’d prefer, we can nominate Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty for the position.)
King and editor Kristan Sprague have opted for an editorial style to match Lyle’s lifestyle, and where the film could have been more rigid and perhaps more effective, we find disappointing holes. Sprague moves laconically from point to point, allowing some of the jokes to land and many others, by nature of hazy motion, to take…just a little…too long. Similarly, the director asks Cheatom frequently to speak low and dumbly, calling for some measure of realistic highness. While anyone can respect their mutual search for authenticity in the character, he’s stoned so often and a natural bumbler, anyway, so we rarely get to hear him clearly. In the scenes (or rather, the key scene) when Lyle finally speaks his mind to Nina, Cheatom’s modulation between embarrassing comedy and authoritative drama reveal a natural screen performer. Those moments, though, are too few and far between.
To be fair, Newlyweeds has none of Chico’s pretentious attitude, and never masquerades as anything but a slice of life from a fresh filmmaking voice. This is not high art, so let’s take from it what we really get. King truly succeeds at displacing the black stoner genre’s more pitiable cousins, purely comic screw-ups like Half Baked and How High, with something of far more significant philosophy and introspection. Since his film premiered in the NEXT section of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, it will find an art-house audience before anything when it’s released theatrically at the Film Forum in New York City. And best of all, once this particularly uneven film moves a little further into the past, it will give its talented filmmaker some opportunities to go higher and higher and higher.
Editor’s Note: At Sundance, where I first saw the film, it also suffered the indignity of having an unforgettable short film precede its screening. Based on a short story by Etgar Keret, Goran Dukic’s What Do We Have in Our Pockets? (2013) was nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the festival, and while it’s only four minutes, those are some of the best four minutes of my filmgoing year.