The first five days of the 2012 Austin Film Festival have been a challenging frame. For a festival with such a rich history and strong commitment to promoting the work of great storytellers, the overall line-up has been anything but noteworthy. The fest’s biggest (and arguably best) film, Silver Linings Playbook, is an obvious stand-out. But I’ll have more on that later. For now, we’re going to take a look at three comedies that have emerged as clear reasons why there’s hope for the Austin Film Festival programming staff. While much of the rest of their line-up underwhelms, they’ve provided their audience with a number of gems, all of which are sure to make us laugh.
That 70s Show starlet Laura Prepon takes the lead in what could be director Ishai Setton’s breakout work. She plays Jennifer, a burgeoning art gallery curator whose thirtieth birthday begins with a messy breakup after finding out that her boyfriend (Bryan Greenberg, Bride Wars) has been sleeping with at least one, but perhaps more of her friends. The entire film revolves around the drama of Jennifer, her younger sister (Compliance star Dreama Walker), her friend that has a not-so-secret crush on her (Matt Bush, High School) and a number of other, often delightful sideshows that pass through the kitchen. The entire film works on the economics of scale, in which a great deal of energy is created by leaving us, the audience, in one room of the house. We see characters and stories move in and out, leave and return and ultimately develop into a satisfying final act. It sounds frantic, and it can be at first, but it ultimately gives The Kitchen a good pulse aided by a kickin’ soundtrack from Blair. Prepon and her co-stars give this story of love, loss, unrequited love, party shenanigans and hurt feelings a great deal of charm and verve, reminiscent of 90s ensemble comedies like Empire Records. Clever and fun, The Kitchen sets itself apart from other indie comedies by staying within itself and focusing on the charm of its cast.
It’s a Disaster
Another film that works on a very specific scale (and does so to great effect) is Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster. Complete with a bit more starpower — the likes of Julia Stiles, David Cross and America Ferrera — this one sees a group of friends who have assembled for a weekly couples brunch, only to find themselves trapped in the house after a chemical weapons attack strikes outside. Berger and his cohorts from the Vacationeers comedy troupe take one of the obsessively bland tropes of modern indie comedies (a bunch of couples in a single setting hashing out their intertwined love lives) and turn it on its head with the backdrop of a cataclysmic event happening just outside. Not too dissimilar from the way Gareth Edwards made a basic road romance story into an epic sci-fi adventure with Monsters, Berger takes this otherwise tired story and injects it with a great deal of life (and a massive amount of death). The characters are fun to watch as they each deal with the inevitable in their own way, especially the ever-gorgeous America Ferrera (seriously, there’s no way that’s the same actress from Ugly Betty, am I right?). The stand-outs are the razor sharp dialogue in Berger’s script and David Cross, who for once plays the (mostly) sane one of the bunch. It’s a dynamic, smart lampooning of a lot of what’s wrong with independent comedies today, and one of the most enjoyable of its type that I’ve seen all year. Full of surprises and wonderful little moments, It’s a Disaster, as the pun goes, is anything but.
Unlike the two films mentioned above, writer/director/star Alexander Poe’s Ex-Girlfriends doesn’t operate in a single space. It’s spread out in a bit of a love note to New York and the people who struggle with its tumultuous dating scene. Poe plays a writer who is down after his latest relationship ends unceremoniously. In response, he does what any well-reasoned man (or John Cusack in High Fidelity) would do, he starts looking at the failed relationships of the past for answers and perhaps a second chance. The mention of Cusack and High Fidelity is deliberate and relevant, as this film has the same sort of energy and the same sort of complex for its main character. Poe’s heavy voiceover work tells us stories about his past relationships, becomes hyper-analytical about his abilities as a man and ultimately shows us the silliness of such backwards movement in the world of love. The only problem is that Poe has a few things working against him. For one, his character is far too likable. There’s no real conflict in his story, other than some mixed signals from that gorgeous gal from Cabin in the Woods (Kristin Connolly) and the persistent abraisiveness of his best friend (Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter). Otherwise he’s got it pretty good. Unlike Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s great tale, Poe’s Graham is a naive, otherwise harmless character. So when it works out (or doesn’t, I’m not saying), we don’t really feel much of anything. With Ex-Girlfriends, Poe proves himself a capable storyteller and visually competent director, but he’s still a work in progress. His film has some charming moments, but ultimately provides us with a rather flat tale that we’ve seen a few times before. That said, it’s charming enough to have me keeping Poe on my radar with interest in what he does next.