We all handle grief in our own ways. Where one person may seek to drown their sorrows in busy work or the bottle, someone else might just shut down and bury themselves in bed for a few weeks. And then there’s Andrew (David Krumholdtz).
His mother’s death from cancer has been increasingly hard on his mental state, and in an effort to heal he and his girlfriend Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) invite four of their closest friends to a rental house in Arizona to celebrate his birthday. Owen (Jason Ritter) and Emily (Gillian Jacobs) are dating, and Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Zoe (Ahna O’Reilly) are pre-engaged. It’s expected to be a week of relaxation, conversation and libation, but Andrew has a special request — the fulfillment of which he believes with heal his soul.
He wants to have group sex with Hannah, Emily and Zoe.
Andrew poses that question in the opening minutes of The Big Ask, and the fallout that follows explores both the fragility and strength of the relationships we form with lovers, friends and even ourselves.
Hannah is aware in advance of Andrew’s impending request, but her hope that he’d drop the idea are crushed when he asks the other couples on their first night together. The four friends laugh until they realize he’s serious at which point their disbelief, disgust and anger start in earnest. Hannah is embarrassed, ashamed and in some ways trapped by his trauma, but more than that she’s understandably hurt. The two couples meanwhile start in solidarity against the idea, but as Andrew’s fragile emotional state becomes increasingly clear cracks begin to form. Those cracks go on to expose pre-existing issues and bonds between friends and lovers, and it’s here where the film becomes something truly special.
Co-directors Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman (working from Beatty’s script) have crafted an achingly honest look at the risks and rewards of relationships. The big ask of the title could be played in multiple ways, but the film wisely uses it more as an intimate invitation than a springboard towards hijinks. Andrew’s request is absurd on its face, but the film takes it as seriously as it takes his pain.
The film’s tight run-time doesn’t waste a frame and still finds time for darkly comical moments throughout, and that balance between the two keeps things from becoming too dry or farcical. The “what if” that fuels the story opens doors towards laughs including Emily’s interrogation of Owen as to whether or not he’s seen Andrew’s penis and a brief visit with some truck stop working girls, but they never drown out the story’s and characters’ true pains. Dark turns in the third act are unexpected but perfectly in sync with the film’s tone, and they actually serve as a course correct of sorts to bring it all home the only way that makes sense.
For everything the script gets right though it still hits a couple bumps along the way. Less something wrong than something missing, the group’s response to Andrew’s request feels legitimate except for what they don’t say. These are smart people, but with a singular exception we don’t see them discuss how this request would most likely kill relationships. No one appears to consider the post-sex dynamic that all future relations between a couple (and between friends) would be informed by that one act.
The script is key to the film’s success, but its fantastically affecting execution comes courtesy of a stellar cast. Most of the faces are familiar from television comedies, but few of them have done work as dramatically rewarding as they manage here. Lynskey is the exception of course as she consistently delivers with every performance. Here she brings heart and humanity to Hannah’s thankless position as loyal companion to a man in free-fall, and her desire to take hold of something real is nowhere more evident than when she reaches out knowingly towards the sharp sting of a cactus.
Krumholtz has the difficult task of playing a man who’s not only in pain but is also a bit of a dick. It’s easy to give up on Andrew the moment he tells Owen and Dave that he just doesn’t care about the predicament his request puts them in, but Krumholtz walks a fine line between instigator and helpless victim of his own spiraling grief. The others bring a fine mix of the comedic and dramatic, but Jacobs is the real surprise here. She’s strong throughout, both funny and earnest, but she devastates with an extraordinarily simple scene in a cactus field. Expression, inflection and delivery come together in a mysterious mix of sexy and sad that packs quite a punch.
The Big Ask begins with a loose cannon of a premise, but the resulting damage is precise in its effect and power. Laughs co-exist with moments of real sadness, bonds are broken while others are built up and all of it happens amid a recognizable and real pocket of friends.
The Upside: Fantastic cast; incredibly honest; never drags, no filler
The Downside: Lack of arguments about how this action could damage relationships
On the Side: The film’s original title is Teddy Bears referring at least in part to the Jumping Cholla cactus.