What: Film Review
Directed by: Chris Nelson
Written by: June Diane Raphael, Casey Wilson
Produced by: Molly Conners, Heather Rae
Starring: June Diane Raphael, Casey Wilson, Alicia Silverstone, Bob Odenkirk, Jon Cryer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Brian Geraghty
Running Time (in min.): 86 minutes
Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
The title of the film reviewed below does half the work for the critics. By this I mean that Ass Backwards, Chris Nelson’s second feature, here from a script by writer-performer team June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson (who also wrote the intolerable Bride Wars (2010)), moves in exactly the direction its title indicates. More generally, but not less true, is how backwards their movie sets comedy as deliberate forward movement. The progress we seem to have a made as a culture with the sublimity of Louie, the feminist empowerment of Bachelorette (2012) and Bridesmaids (2011), the wizened wit of Lena Dunham and the post-mumbler Millenial comedies isn’t progress at all – it’s just the front of a comedy horse. Seeing this film helps you find its ass.
Kate and Chloe – respectively played by Raphael, best known for television’s Burning Love, and Wilson, from the now-deceased Happy Endings – are best friends suffering from chronic stupidity. They don’t really work (they get fired early because they’re inept and obnoxious) but they do live together in a dinky New York apartment (until they can no longer afford it.) A shared memory of their dual loss at a regional childhood beauty pageant, a la Miss Sunshine, inspires them to head cross-country to reparticipate in the adult version. From that novel concept for a picture, we meet the usual: Chloe’s similarly dull father (Vincent D’Onofrio, unfathomably wasted); a salacious strip club manager with some aggressive demands (Paul Scheer of NTSF: SD: SUV); and a drug-addicted reality star (Brian Geraghty, of 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Motion Picture of the Year, The Hurt Locker.)
Plot? Not the point, I don’t think, and you’ve already got most of it. What you don’t know is that Kate and Chloe are also two of the more disgusting, egregiously behaved characters in recent film. I predict their boundary-breaking activities will be heralded upon its theatrical release in November 2013 (as of September 30, it’s available on Video-on-Demand) with a cult following. Their lives are complete delusions in the literal and filmic senses; that is to say, while filmmakers count on the audience not to mind when their characters don’t eat or defecate in an hour-and-a-half of screen time, those characters typically have some relationship to reality. Not so here, and if that was the filmmakers’ mutual goal, they struck gold.
The film heralds the first starring feature roles for its stars, who must have learned from someone smart that the only way to get work is to make it yourself. Wilson has proved to be an exquisite comic talent in film and television, and had a lovely if brief role in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s David Sedaris adaptation C.O.G. (also at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where Ass Backwards had its World Premiere.) Matching her in up-and-comingness is Ms. Raphael, familiar from significant roles in the brilliant Party Down and NTSF: SD: SUV. You can just see their excitement shining through the manic, overdone veneers of their characters. And certainly both talented performers give the roles their all. Yet it is their symbiosis – the result of which is indistinguishability here – that is the picture’s biggest fault.
Both characters are so narcissistic, so blindly ‘ambitious,’ and so crass that they come off as two peas in a pod instead of a yin-and-yang team. This isn’t The Sunshine Boys, but one may never wish for the cute warmth of a Neil Simon play more until the middle of Nelson’s film. All manner of surprise and spontaneity is lost when the same behavior comes from not one main character but both – and peripheral character development, like plot, isn’t high on the list of priorities here. Not helping matters is the incessant use of cameos without value; that is, “Oh – it’s that guy” doesn’t cut it with bad comedy. D’Onofrio and Geraghty get the good end of a short stick that includes Jon Cryer (about as funny here as during an Emmy’s speech), the criminally underrated Bob Odenkirk (also with several films at Sundance), and a miscast Alicia Silverstone as the beauty queen who one-upped the young ladies as children.
No, on the contrary to being “an irrevent buddy comedy,” as it has so been marketed, this is a dirty road-trip romp meant only to shock the prudes in the audience. Yes, there are laughs from the surprise of some particular sight gags, but none rings so funny as the very first joke in the movie – and THAT’S the sign of a poorly made feature. Nelson makes little of himself here except to assume a working position that a female director may have worked more to her advantage (at least our chance of empathy in the film would have increased. Perhaps a “Gus Van Sant’s version of Psycho“-type remake is in the future.) Similarly, Raphael and Wilson’s script is cruder than it is funny. In a movie with this spirit, a wild-and-crazy third act, outrageous scenarios, and unforgettable characters should be basic. So where the hell are they? Ass Backwards looks like something that wants to have those things. But, as the old maxim goes: if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.