Comedic and improv actor Brett Gelman co-wrote and stars in this cringe-inducing dark comedy about a straight-up loser. Gelman’s incarnation of Isaac Lachmann reminds me of Napoleon Dynamite in his 40s after battling depression, an unhappy relationship and a failing career. It’s not a pretty picture, and all of the laughs come from Isaac’s inability to, well, be.
The film starts with a very stark contrast between what’s on TV (i.e. an African woman talking about the violence in her home country) and who’s in front of the TV (i.e. Isaac sleeping in his pajamas on the couch). Co-writer and director Janicza Bravo (also Gelman’s girlfriend) effectively sets the tone of this queasy film in which Isaac’s character loses everything through his ineptitude, not via profound tragedy like the woman on TV.
An antisocial creep, somehow Isaac manages to convince students to pay for his acting class. As an actor, he can only get work for Hepatitis C public service ads and the oxymoronically named product, Dignity Diapers. When his student, played by an equally creepy Michael Cera, becomes more successful than Isaac, Isaac lures him to his house to assault him, then spray paints his car with an unforgettable expletive.
Meanwhile, his girlfriend Ramona, played by Judy Greer, tries breaking up with him. His response is that he could cut up her up and leave her in a forest and that, also, they should stay together. When that ploy doesn’t work, somehow Isaac manages to wrangle a date with Cleo, a beautiful, successful woman he met on a photo shoot (with Megan Mullally as the underwhelmed photographer). But upon meeting Cleo’s Caribbean family, Isaac’s first words are, “I didn’t know there’d be accents.” He then tries to ingratiate himself with her family by lamenting the number of African Americans in prison. It doesn’t work.
This is an uncomfortable movie with no redeeming qualities in its anti-hero, who ends up more disgraced than before. Bravo and Gelman refuse to sugar-coat Isaac as “just quirky.” For that, the film has a lot of integrity even if it’s difficult to follow. It’s also beautifully filmed. Each shot could be a dynamic painting, with characters placed at diagonals and offset by doorways, walls and arches. Cinematographer Jason McCormick should win an Oscar, but I’m afraid Hollywood will judge this film by its title.