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Confident Debut ‘On the Count of Three’ is a Flawed, Bittersweet Bromance

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s existential feature debut is carried by his strong direction and its infectious character chemistry.
Sundance 2021: On The Count Of Three
Sundance Institute
By  · Published on January 30th, 2021

Jerrod Carmichael (co-creator of the semi-autobiographical sitcom The Carmichael Show) flexes his directing skills in On the Count of Three, a black comedy debut about death that showcases his promise as a compelling new filmmaker. But the digressive script (written by Ramy co-creators and writers Ryan Welch and Ari Fletcher) does a disservice to the natural chemistry between its two leads, played by Carmichael and Christopher Abbott.

The first time we see childhood friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Abott), they’re pointing a pair of handguns at each other behind a strip club at ten in the morning. The goal? To kill one another, a lifelong objective of mentally ill, suicidal Kevin, who’s been in and out of mental hospitals since his youth when he first began fantasizing about ending it all. Val, on the other hand, never had such ideations, but recent events in his life, including the realization of a directionless relationship and a dead-end job, have given him a new perspective on the matter.

A gun goes off and the screen goes black, and we rewind to earlier that same day when Val is on the cusp of a promotion at Richie’s Feed and Seed, where he sells mulch, and Kevin is in therapy at the mental hospital where he’s been committed. After comically attempting to off himself with his belt in his workplace bathroom, Val bails for good on the job and pays a visit to his troubled pal.

“Quitting’s amazing,” Val tells Kevin, who had also just recently tried to kill himself by overdosing on pills, the act of which landed him in this umpteenth hospital stint. Distressingly, Val admits to having felt no real emotion towards the revelation of his best friend’s attempted suicide upon finding out, used as further reasoning for wanting to die alongside the tirelessly suicidal Kevin, who has tried everything to free himself of this cruel world for years, to no avail.

After Val breaks Kevin out of the hospital, the pair agrees to end it all by the days’ conclusion, embarking on a journey of writing wrongs and exorcising demons. This includes Val confronting his abusive father (J.B. Smoove) and ex-girlfriend Natasha (Tiffany Haddish), all meant to culminate with Kevin murdering the child psychiatrist who sexually abused him (Henry Winkler) and who won’t be back in his office until 5:45 pm.

On the Count of Three succeeds in spurts of vivid energy, the height of which is, perhaps, best exemplified by an unforgettable scene in which Kevin sings impassioned car karaoke along to “Last Resort” by Papa Roach. It’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, somewhat earnest use of the early-aughts hard rock band that has mostly become memed in retrospect.

Val had denied Kevin the honor of overseeing the car aux earlier in his first attempt at playing the song for the two of them, insisting that it’s pointless to listen to music that accurately emotes what someone is feeling. But the song becomes affectingly indicative of Kevin’s real pain and, simultaneously, of the stunted emotional state that he has been forced into due to his childhood abuse.

That flippant yet inherently compassionate tone guides On the Count of Three, which is oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny and even more times exceedingly bleak, though these bursts of energy feel too few and far between for a film with such rich character chemistry as there is between Carmichael and Abbott. On the Count of Three is marked by a sluggishness between these visits with the scorned Ghosts of Christmas Past, missing an extra amount of narrative vitality, be it in the amount of dialogue or in the action between scenes — although, maybe this is ironic to purport in a film about a death pact.

But Abbott and Carmichael do carry this film on their backs. The love they feel for one another as they race towards the end of their respective worlds is expressed convincingly both in committed performances and in the sharp dialogue their characters are given. This makes me ache for a version of On the Count of Three that is more dialogue-heavy, less meandering, and slightly longer in runtime, to further flesh out the relationship between the devoted friends.

A scene where Kevin tucks his handgun into the waistband of his sweatpants flirts with romantic undertones between him and Val, as Val glances lovingly at his friend and states that he’s admiring him and how cool he looks. Both actors are grown men in their thirties but evoke the appearance of boys — Val at one point makes an off-hand remark on the juxtaposition between Kevin’s puppy-dog eyes and his bloodlust. This subtly contributes to the idea that neither of them really knows what they’re doing in this world that they’ve only just begun to live in, be it flirting with suicide or otherwise, even more-so in the early revelation that Natasha is pregnant with Val’s baby.

Although uncertain and immature, neither character’s pain is invalidated, culminating in a bloody and quite politically charged climax that settles the dust, if a bit deflatingly, on what it means to want to die and what it means to want to live. On the Count of Three is a confident directorial effort from Carmichael, whose configuration of the scene in which Val and Kevin prepare to shoot one another is as memorably composed as it is achingly, ironically expressive of the affection shared between the two men. He provides the film an initial vigor that ultimately doesn’t last, though portends that which anchors it.

That makes me interested to see what the comedy writer could do with a film guided by a script of his own instead of one written by others. But On the Count of Three still marks an exciting, moving debut from Carmichael for a world currently as fixated by death as are Val and Kevin.

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Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.