Watching The Boy Downstairs at the Tribeca Film Festival a question kept looping through my head: Would Shoshanna Shapiro like this movie? I do not, in fact, check every movie I see against the imagined taste of everyone’s favorite character on Girls; this came to mind not just because Zosia Mamet, who plays Shoshanna, stars in The Boy Downstairs (indeed, appears in, if I’m not mistaken, every scene), but because it’s a lightly amusing romantic comedy set in New York City with currents of real-life emotion underneath some fantastical material about scoring a great new apartment and really finding yourself creatively or whatever.
The catch about that great new apartment for Diana (Mamet) is that it’s located upstairs from another apartment inhabited by Ben (Matthew Shear, cleaned up a little since his hilarious performance in Mistress America), the boyfriend she loved but broke up with four years earlier, when she moved to London and wanted to make a clean break. Unlike Shoshanna’s career-driven sojourn to Japan in Season 5, there is no great reason given for Diana going through with her London move beyond that she can do so easily because she has dual citizenship. It’s transparently a story device, which is a shame because writer-director Sophie Brooks otherwise captures low-key twentysomething joys and struggles. The movie is funny, though the jokes are all in-movie and available for the other characters to laugh at, which can be an uncomfortable spectacle. That reluctance to eschew full-on actual comedy in favor of mild real-life cute comedy contributes to a general slightness, but Mamet makes a winning rom-com heroine, even when neither the rom nor the com are pushed to the forefront. I think Shosh would dig it, at least for a while.
The pairing of Mamet and Shear is like a New York hipster-y version of a common game at indie-heavy film fests: the unlikely matching of familiar faces. Aardvark, for example, puts Jenny Slate together with Jon Hamm, a combination I had no idea I wanted to see—and still do, because Aardvark didn’t quite do it for me. Neither Slate nor Hamm is the absolute lead of the movie, though Slate is close. The main character is Josh (Zachary Quinto), who goes to Emily (Slate) for some paid-in-cash therapy (she’s a therapist, not a doctor, she has to keep reminding people). Josh is clearly some sort of unwell, and has been set off by the return of Craig (Hamm), his successful actor brother, to their smallish hometown.
Aardvark toys with perception a bit because Josh is not one hundred percent reliable. He claims to see (and we see with him) Craig in various stunning, actorly disguises—a homeless woman, a cop—who look nothing like Hamm. He also claims not to have seen Craig in his regular form. Is Josh hallucinating, lying, or indulging an overactive imagination? Is Craig really an actor? Is the handsome man who comes to see Emily actually Josh’s brother? Is he really avoiding his brother but happy to check in on his brother’s therapist?
The answer to most of these questions is a resounding “eh.” The movie plays fair and doesn’t try to pull off any ridiculous twists—but then why does it play so coy for so long about what’s actually going on? Quinto, Slate, and Hamm, all fine here, are hamstrung by Aardvark’s weird caginess. It toys with expectations, but those expectations are mostly created by the movie (it begs for inspection of every one-shot or two-shot: Are the actors framed together? Are people really there? Will a third person enter the scene?), making it something of a closed system. Hamm and Slate, though, make a distinctive pair for the way they both oscillate from their natural charms (him into brusqueness, her into self-loathing). Putting them together turns out to be the movie’s best idea.
Similarly, I really didn’t think I needed to see 43-year-old Ed Helms romance a twelve-years-his-junior Amanda Seyfriend, but it turns out to be the most appealing element of Dito Montiel’s The Clapper. Helms plays an Ed Helms type, albeit somewhat less emotionally needy: A sorta awkward, gently gawky dude in a dorky haircut who has found an unusual line of work for himself out in Los Angeles, working as a professional clapper, reactor, and question-asker in various infomercial audiences. He hustles around town with his buddy (Tracy Morgan), shoots infomercials, and picks up his checks; he gets extra for asking questions on-camera. He has no designs on greater fame, but he gets it anyway when a vaguely Kimmel-like talk show host picks up on his many appearances (he wears various thin disguises to maximize his work) and adopts him as sort of a Stupid Human Tricks-style mascot.
The part of the movie that should be the shakiest—the Clapper’s flirtation with a sweet, odd gas station attendant (Amanda Seyfried)—is surprisingly affecting. But it and the movie are threatened by encroaching fame (but, moreover, a guy not having a girl’s phone number). The supposedly “nationwide” obsession with the Clapper seems like a relic from the early Letterman days, when talk shows took more time-outs from relentless celebrity promotion, brought into the present without much thought. The movie wants to be an exploration of meme culture, but it never feels of-the-moment. It’s clearly set now, complete with references to YouTube and Instagram, but many of its characters seem weirdly unaware of technology beyond 1995 or so (there’s a funny, addled conversation about how YouTube videos work between Helms and Morgan that is also utterly, bafflingly unconvincing, as if the movie doesn’t realize that fortyish guys in 2017 would have been in their twenties when YouTube debuted). Payphones and CRT television sets abound, and if Montiel is trying to make this a point of sharp contrast, it doesn’t land; it just plays as weird and inconsistent. Muddled staging of his dialogue scenes doesn’t help; even the talk-show set has a distended awkwardness (the host’s desk looks too big, so he’s constantly sitting three or four feet away from his guests). The verbal clamor evokes a poor man’s David O. Russell. But the quiet scenes between Helms and Seyfried work better than they should, and carry the movie further than it really deserves to go.
The starriest movie I saw at Tribeca was also arguably the most disappointing. The Circle, which slipped in a Tribeca premiere ahead of its wide theatrical release this weekend, stars Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, the late/great Bill Paxon, Glenne Headly, Karen Gillan, the kid from Boyhood, and Patton Oswalt. I assume a lot of these people either read the Dave Eggers novel that forms the basis for the screenplay, or saw The End of the Tour and/or The Spectacular Now, the recent films from director/co-adapter James Ponsoldt. That’s the simplest explanation for what such an eclectic and talented cast is doing in a movie that starts off relatively crisp and concise and empathetic, and winds up in muddle of internet-age paranoia. The paranoia is the point, of course, but Ponsoldt doesn’t hone anything about the material—the characters, the story, the cinematography—into anything sharp, exciting, or even all that detailed. The set-up, where Watson goes to work at a Google-like digital conglomerate, is intriguing and lightly satirical (for about half an hour I wondered what all the bad buzz was about), but Ponsoldt fails to execute the pivot into noveau-70s brainy-thriller territory. Even so, I wouldn’t mind if a high-minded late-April Tom Hanks indie became an annual Tribeca tradition; last year’s A Hologram for the King was a lot more interesting. Better luck next year, Hanks!
The Clapper screens again at Tribeca on Saturday evening. The Circle is now playing everywhere.