The Electric Darkness of Noël Wells’ “Mr. Roosevelt”

Directed and Written by: Noël Wells
Starring: Noël Wells, Nick Thune, Daniella Pineda, Britt Lower, Andre Hyland, Doug Benson, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Alex Dobrenko
Produced by: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub, Chris Ohlson
Edited by: Terel Gibson
Music by: Ryan Miller
Cinematography by: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen
Winner of the Audience Award in Narrative Spotlight – 2017 SXSW Film Festival

From the moment Noël Wells appears onscreen in her directorial debut, we sense that she is in complete control of language and image.

That assurance creates an electric undercurrent which girds the film, Mr. Roosevelt, a Beachside production which Wells also wrote and executive produced. Though hardly intended to reinvent the independent comedy wheel (when will Firestone start making those, I wonder?), the picture is an inspiration in the strength of its performers and in their universal, more-than-common intellect.

Wells is Emily Martin, a vaguely depressed, or perhaps simply unmoored, young comedian living in a hipster lion’s den (Los Angeles.) Between attending late-night improv shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and editing corporate videos for a sexist bully of a supervisor (Doug Benson), her hobbies have been corrupted by financial and emotional strain.

If Martin ever aspired towards filmmaking, the bubblegum ads she edits – two hands cupping a fresh seedling; a bald eagle soaring through the sky; tinkling acoustic guitar – have all but soiled her passion. And the comics (the improvisor and actor Armen Weitzman among them) she meets in Hollywood prove, in an excoriating early scene, to be lascivious pricks.

This is too bad, because Emily is a secretly gifted performer in her own right whose sole point of pride in the industry is a viral YouTube video in which she is splattered with pasta sauce and Spaghetti-O’s.

In a perfect world, the millions of views Martin receives might have kickstarted a career of online sponsorships and development deals, à la Issa Rae or Grace Helbig. But Martin is struggling to make ends meet when her ex-boyfriend, Eric (played by Nick Thune, in his most appealing role to date), calls from Austin to let her know that their cat, Theodore Roosevelt, is dying.

With her last dime, she flies to Texas, and – wouldn’t you know it? – winds up stuck in the place she once shared with Eric, but which is now the redecorated home of his supposedly evolved partner, Celeste Jones (Britt Lower).

What happens in the house and around town, as Eric, Emily, and Celeste are forced into uncomfortably close quarters, you can probably surmise.

Frankly, it’s not important: Wells’ script prioritizes her viewpoint over plot ingenuity, and thankfully, this strategy is a success. Dozens of one-liners, usually in the form of stinging micro-aggressions, leave a pleasingly sour taste. The major climactic set-pieces, too – like a confrontation with a local musician (Daniella Pineda) over Mr. Roosevelt’s remains – have a nasty buoyancy designed for the most cynical among us.

At its most uncomfortable, watching the film can feel like putting an entire pack of Warheads in your mouth on a dare: to wince is to feel pleasure. But Wells, unlike so many of her indie auteur predecessors (in Mr. Roosevelt, a character rediscovers a prized Clerks shirt), displays a sensitivity to the elements causing Emily’s misery, rather than simply treating them as character traits.

Her power in femininity, for example, is among Martin’s saving graces; at the same time, it keeps her (and us) alert to the ways in which patriarchal society demonizes or subjugates her.

When she encounters a perpetually stoned wisenheimer named Art (the hilariously toxic Andre Hyland), whose real name is the quintessentially Austin “Artist”, he first mocks her to “free her nipple,” before calling her a bitch – all in the name of flirtation.

When her sanctimonious boss calls to admonish Martin for a client’s concerns, he fires her for “not being a good fit” with the other hoodie-clad, pot-bellied male hipsters in his employ.

In both cases, Martin first buckles, then stands up for herself, exhibitions of a more significant integrity than any Kevin Smith character ever showed. Wells’ accomplishment is to present Emily without ersatz winsomeness or a screenwriter’s quirks – in fact, at the very accusation of “quirkiness”, she correctly scolds a man for condescending to her – without suppressing her natural eccentricities.

This balance also applies as impressively to the characters played by Pineda, Lower, and especially Thune, the wounded but never less than supportive ex. As Eric, Thune has adopted a chic scruffiness somewhere between his bearded Folk Hero days and the clean-shaven beauty he has sometimes used to separate his personae as a stand-up comedian and an actor.

His is the film’s warmest performance, acting as ballast to Emily in her grief while subtly referring, again and again, to the cloud of misery her abandonment left Eric with. Lower, as his counterpart, operates in similarly fine shadings.

Nonetheless, the film belongs, in concept, execution, and energy, to its exhilarating creator. This marks her second commanding role in a year, after a scene-stealing (while I hate to employ that phrase, it hardly does justice to her excellent supporting work) performance in Netflix’s The Incredible Jessica James.

Wells is supremely funny as Martin, her vicious self-immolation distancing itself from the quiet tenderness she exhibited in Master of None.

In noting the gradations between those three characters – one should also factor in the gifts she displayed as an impressionist on Saturday Night Live and YouTube – it is clear that we are dealing with a talent of the Jim Carrey mold: bombastic, physical, and wiry, but with an anchored darkness that informs even the wildest creative characters.

Mr. Roosevelt, slight as its story may be, lays the groundwork for a Truman Show-style starring role for Wells, likely of her own devising and direction. If we’re lucky, we’ll all be around to see it.

*****

Mr. Roosevelt hits theaters in Los Angeles beginning Nov. 17 and in New York Nov. 22.

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