Dave Made a Maze (2017) Film Review

Directed by: Bill Watterson
Written by: Steven Sears & Bill Watterson
Story by: Steven Sears
Starring: Nick Thune, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Adam Busch, James Urbaniak, Frank Caeti, Stephanie Allynne, Scott Krinsky, Rick Overton
Produced by: John Charles Meyer, John Culdenko
Music by: Mondo Boys, Paul Cartwright
Cinematography by: Jon Boal
Edited by: David Egan
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature – 2017 Slamdance Film Festival

*****

Dave made me chuckle.

In this adore-able (I’ll explain the term in a moment) first feature from co-writer/director Bill Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears, Dave is an easily distracted 30-year-old layabout played by a baseball-T-shirted Nick Thune. Like the best of us professional creatives, Dave has devised a literally labyrinthine method for procrastinating into infinity: he constructs a personal fort that is quite a bit bigger than it looks. In a different movie, Dave might have made a good film critic.

Despite his lax attitude to work, the maze he makes is a thing of wondrous beauty, crafted with delicacy by production designers John Sumner and Trisha Gunn, and art director Jeff White. The exterior, discovered with a baffled sniff by Dave’s partner Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) in the middle of their apartment, is a pile of loosely-assembled paper cut-outs and tattered rags.

Inside it, however, is a cardboard jungle filled with booby traps and monstrosities, like an Easter Island head puppet and a murderous minotaur. If the concept of a half-box, half-bull, half-man (I know the ratio’s a bit off there) terrorizing unemployed losers into becoming heroes sounds to any literate readers like a deep psychological dive into the ennui-filled millennial mindset, well, you’re overthinking it.

Annie’s first instinct is to call Gordon (a scene-stealing Adam Busch), Dave’s deadpan partner-in-crime and the film’s sensible anchor, for help getting Thune out of it. Against her wishes, however, Gordon brings friends, including a noxiously ambitious filmmaker (James Urbaniak, welcome as ever), his crew (Scott Narver and MadTV’s Frank Caeti), and some deadweight hipsters (Stephanie Allynne and Timothy Nordwind), several of whom fail to make it out of the maze “alive” (it’s fuzzy as to whether there are any real life-or-death stakes outside the cardboard.)

Though this Indiana Jones-by-way-of-Avenue Q-style set-up might seem overwhelming, the gimmickry is employed with enough whimsy and bemused irony that it rarely dips into any cloying emotional sequences.

By injecting slacker slapstick into an odyssey narrative, Watterson and Sears seem to be after something more simple than the algorithmically heartfelt festival indies that usually screen at Slamdance, the Park City fest where this film had its World Premiere earlier this year. They want you to giggle, and giggle again, until their outrageous premise disappears from view and only the gags remain.

In this regard, the film is a very mild success, thanks primarily to the who’s who of comic character actors in the cast. Between Busch, Urbaniak, Allynne, and the irreplaceable Rick Overton (as a slovenly bum) we get the largest three or four laughs. The biggest surprise in the cast, however, is Thune.

With Dave, the comic has his first major lead role (if you don’t count the eponymous penis [eponypenis?] in Bad Johnson) after a career of deftly brilliant stand-up specials like last year’s Seeso original, Nick Thune: Good Guy. As in Noël Wells’s SXSW hit Mr. Roosevelt, he demonstrates a quiet, earnest charm. But where that performance earned him and Wells significant accolades out of Austin, in this picture Thune’s sincerity unfortunately jars against a broader, glibber attitude.

This miscast is understandable because Thune is known primarily for his cavalier sarcasm, sleight-of-hand wordplay and a cleverer-than-thou stage persona which undercuts arrogance with material about his Christian faith and personal family life.

But unlike Gordon or Urbaniak’s film-within-the-film crew, Dave isn’t particularly witty or bursting with one-liners; rather, he’s soft-spoken, a bit deflated, a disillusioned Everyman with warm eyes. Thune is extremely funny, yet Dave is not, and might have been better served by a naturally sweet actor with perfect facetious timing, like Ryan Gosling, for example, or had it been shot forty years ago, Richard Dreyfuss. His conversations with Annie are especially unsettling, since Thune and Kumbhani rarely touch or register any kind of intimacies whatsoever.

The disjuncture between actor (Thune) and role (Dave) upsets what might have been a more balanced dramedy, pitting the comic’s calm performance against a more frantic, almost flibbertigibbet cast.

Watterson and editor David Egan apparently realize this because Thune, despite being the top-billed cast member, is widely absent from the film’s entire first act. That is left to Kumbhani and Busch who, though a capable pair, cannot hold a narrative feature together. A sense of desperation ultimately wafts over the early proceedings until Thune’s welcome reappearance.

Still, Dave Made a Maze represents a kind of necessary and miserably rare aspirational filmmaking that will no doubt create the cult aura Gravitas Ventures is hoping for following the film’s Aug. 18 VOD release.

I’ve described this niche-friendly quality before as “adore-ability”, meaning that it inherently contains the capacity to become truly beloved by the right kinds of people – if not necessarily everybody – on the free market.

Some will find that this an easy film to adore, not only because it is executed in its DIY way with great visual care, but also because it refuses to give in to the self-seriousness which dogs so many contemporary indies. It is a crowd-pleaser in the truest sense of the word, even if I myself wasn’t particularly pleased.

****

Editor’s Factoid: In 2013, I appeared in a digital series starring Thune and Moshe Kasher. In each episode, the comics were asked to roast a group of people from different corners of society and develop original, impromptu stand-up sets. At one point, Live Action Role Players were under fire; Thune and Kasher, who were both hilariously mocking, so thoroughly embarrassed a paid cast member that he stormed off on camera.

Dave Made a Maze is in theaters and VOD on August 18. You can preorder it on iTunes as well.

One response to “Dave Made a Maze (2017) Film Review

  1. Pingback: The Electric Darkness of Noël Wells’ “Mr. Roosevelt” | CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism·

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