This is the first of Jesse Hassenger’s dispatches from the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, which continues through this weekend.
Demetri Martin has a comedy style that depends on a certain deadpan simplicity, so it’s something of a shock to see him participating in something as elaborate as a feature film—especially one he wrote, directed, produced, and stars in himself. But that’s the deal with Dean, wherein Martin plays the title character, who has recently lost his mother. He’s adrift, and when his father (Kevin Kline) takes a more active role in grieving and decides to sell their family home, Dean departs New York for Los Angeles, essentially to avoid the conversation.
So: there’s the New York-to-L.A. skepticism of Annie Hall, complete with whimsical drawings augmenting the action a la Woody’s asides, plus the deadpan grieving of Garden State, and for good measure a few bits where the camera tracks laterally as Dean walks with a Wes Andersonian gait. Dean is ready for translation as a melancholy Anderson-style cartoon; he’s a cartoonist of sorts, and with Martin’s trademark helmet of dark hair and the triangular slope of his nose, he’s easily to translate into a few bold penstrokes. The movie’s best moments resemble penstrokes, too: Martin composes some off-kilter gags, like the reveal of a box of donuts in Dean’s bed and an elegantly slow-motion pratfall.
But the emotional component of Dean is a little remote. For that matter, so is some of the comedy, an unexpected note for the oddball gentility of Martin on stage. This is one of those comedies where most of the characters are treated as annoying impositions on the hero’s everydude nothingness. Only Dean’s father (played touchingly by Kline, even when placed on the movie’s narrative backburner) and sudden love interest (Gillian Jacobs) escape a kind of low-key disdain. At one point, one of Dean’s buddies gives him some pick-up-artist-style advice about interacting with women: “Be aloof.” His interpretation of this goes comically awry, but the movie doesn’t seem to notice that Dean is already pretty goddamned aloof (maybe I’m just sore because no one in this movie seems to have to go to work at any point).
Martin deserves some credit for the low-key complications he introduces into what seem at first like magical-savior love stories, but frankly, I thought his first film might have more of that stuff—low-key and bittersweet—and less riffing about cell phone attachments and how people in L.A. are always “doing bits” (you know, as opposed to Dean, who merely makes deadpan jokes and observations). Dean starts out reminiscent of Garden State but at one point Martin and Jacobs walk past a movie theater marquee offering a more apt comparison: Zach Braff’s flailing follow-up Wish I Was Here. OK, it’s not that toxic, but still: Dean is a disappointment.
Martin doesn’t play a stand-up in his movie; he sequesters the cartooning aspect of his shtick into an imitation of a profession, though it’s not wholly convincing that his character could make a decent living off a single book of wry cartoons. But as often as Dean jokes, he doesn’t have the stereotypical wisecracking neediness of a comic (that’s also true of his his other film roles so far, which use aspects of the Demetri Martin persona without making him an in-movie laugh riot). In fact, he encounters these personalities in Dean in the form of improvisers, and Martin’s writing so nails the tone of amped-up real-life jokers that, like other bits of satire throughout the movie, it feels a little sour. Martin himself is more recessive than the broadest ideas of a comic.
In some ways, that’s also true of Alex Karpovsky, best known for playing curmudgeonly Ray on HBO’s Girls. Ray is prone to the occasional socially motivated rant, but his material, funny as it can be, isn’t always polished; recall the episode where he confronts relentless horn-honkers outside of his apartment, and can only sputter into an impotent rage when trying to reason with the unreasonable. Folk Hero and Funny Guy takes advantage of that “clenched” quality, as one character refers to it, in casting Karpovsky as Paul, a stand-up with decent comic instincts and often wan, semi-strangled material (in the movie’s most painful moments, he returns again and again to an outdated riff about Evite). Paul goes on tour with his lifelong friend Jason (Wyatt Russell), who happens to be a very successful singer-songwriter in the folk-roots-country vein; it’s a pity gig, really, but Paul, fresh off a break-up and considering a return to ad-world copy-writing, is in no position to turn it down.
Folk Hero and Funny Guy isn’t especially hilarious, though it title does derive from an amusing Bruce Springsteen impression-off. But writer-director Jeff Grace has a solid feel for dialogue; unlike a lot of movies about old friends, Karpovsky and Russell actually seem like they like each other, even when they’re getting frustrated. Their mutual irritation feels lived-in. When Jason impulsively adds struggling folk singer Bryn (Meredith Hagner) to the tour, a sort-of love triangle forms. It turns out Paul bungles his love life not unlike the way he bungles his comedy writing, by sticking to a poorly conceived script in dire need of updating. It’s a simple take-a-risk narrative, but the successful fecklessness of Russell’s singer tempers the life lessons a bit.
Folk Hero starts so confidently that its unobtrusive competence is something of a let-down: it intercuts Jason and Paul discussing their tour on stage, then flashes back to a split-screen sequence contrasting their morning routines. Nothing in the movie is so visually interesting until the split-screen gets revived for a contrast-of-a-contrast at the end. Still, it’s reassuring to see a movie about a professional musician that doesn’t seem blatantly uninterested in how their jobs actually work—and a movie about a semi-professional comedian who is legitimately only semi-funny.
There’s also a sort of professional rivalry at the core of Sophia Takal’s Always Shine, and by “sort of,” I mean “cripplingly intense.” Takal’s film is actually a lot—a lot—like Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. Here, as in last year’s Elisabeth Moss creeper, two women, ostensibly friends, go away for a weekend together, during which their resentments come to a full, possibly unhinged boil. There are a couple of major differences, though. One is that Takal and her screenwriter husband Lawrence Michael Levine have a much finer ear for the music of human resentment. Perry’s characters are often hostile and nasty, but in a weirdly airless, sometimes alien-sounding way. Perry characters say horrible relationship-ending things to one another, and then stand around as the relationships still don’t end, leaving the filmmaking and acting to redeem the clunky writing. The passive-aggressive balance in the dialogue between Always Shine‘s Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) is perfectly modulated between encouragement and undermining.
The other difference is the Hollywood angle: Beth is a rising star, while the more confrontational Anna (possibly, it’s implied, a better performer) is floundering. There are, if not exactly in-jokes, some knowing references right off the bat, as Takal shoots FitzGerald in close-up during an audition, with lecherous voices giving her instructions off-screen, calling her “sweetheart,” the whole creepy deal. Then Anna gets a similar long take where she’s arguing with a mechanic over her bill. The movie has been compared to De Palma, and while the knowing riffs on voyeurism—there’s lots of talk of on-screen nudity, and the characters in the movie are frequently and pointedly getting naked out of the way of camera’s gaze—match up there, Takal doesn’t push far or hard enough, and tips her hand a little too soon. Eventually, the paralleling of Beth and Anna gets a little on-the-nose, and the movie ends anticlimactically, if appropriately. That’s true of all three of these movies on the actor-comedian spectrum: They all stop short of real surprise.