John (Michael Angarano) and Alice (Juno Temple) are a young couple high on love and low on net worth. He goes to a job he hates every day while she struggles to find even that much, but their lives are upended when she’s compelled to steal an old, brass teapot from a rundown antique shop. The teapot, like something designed by O. Henry’s more sadistic brother, dispenses cash when in the presence of pain. As John states and promptly ignores early on, this is going to end badly.
Almost immediately the duo are taking turns hurting themselves and each other for the blood money that fills the pot. They smash, hit, and burn themselves. They get tattoos, Brazilian waxes and root canals. And they agree that they’ll stop as soon as they reach $1 million. But greed has a funny way of helping people rationalize even the most idiotic decisions, and soon they’re in well over their heads with the pain, the cruelty and with a pair of Hassidic Jews prone to using their own brand of violence to get what they want.
Director Ramaa Mosley’s film is a cautionary tale about getting everything you want and realizing it’s far from everything you need. That in and of itself is nothing new, but the script by Tim Macy brings an intriguing and original twist to it through the teapot’s need for pain. Sure it’s also a slight riff on Richard Matheson’s “The Box,” but where that tale saw people forced to choose violence for anonymous others, this one requires the holders to inflict it on themselves.
And each other.
It’s that distinction that encourages John and Alice to descend into acts of cruelty that seem counter to the love that brought them together in the first place. While Alice was voted most likely to succeed in high school, she now blames her current woes on John. Where he was once a kind and considerate man, he now blithely inflicts pain on others.
The darkness that envelopes the couple extends to the film itself at times, but while it’s an unexpected turn, it’s also an ill-fitting one. Much of the movie plays comically light and slapsticky, leaving the multiple moments of real suffering to stand out not for their narrative weight but for their unearned presence. Sweet interactions and overly goofy action give way to some unforgivable meanness and worse, but the film expects viewers to fall back in with the screwball antics no questions asked. That tonal ambivalence also hurts the lead characters and our perception of them. Not only will viewers grow to dislike the couple, but they’ll quickly decide to not care about them at all.
The story reaches an obvious yet abrupt conclusion too, but there are some charms along the way. Angarano and Temple both give their all to characters who are both over the top and emotionally damaged. She’s tread similar ground before with her portrayal of a slightly daft sexpot, but he’s rarely been this comedically loose. The oft-maligned but superior Ceremony allowed him room to be playful while still keeping the performance in check, but here he simply goes wild. Additional but sporadic laughs come courtesy of the angry Jews, and there’s some fine albeit brief character work by Jack McBrayer and Alia Shawkat.
The Brass Teapot has moments of absurd humor and glimmers of social commentary, and the energetic lead performances bring some smiles for fans of Angarano and Temple. The story is less successful though as aside from its unique premise it has very little to offer thanks to its very familiar moral.
The Upside: Michael Angarano is a solid comedic actor; some laughs, usually relating to the absurd Hassidic brothers
The Downside: Tonally off the map; characters quickly lose likeability
On the Side: Tim Macy’s script is based on his own comic book series