Austin-based filmmaker Bryan Poyser’s first two features, “Dear Pillow” and “Lovers of Hate,” explored relationship problems by dealing in unconventionally frank ways with sex. Working on a microbudget scale, the movies had little in common with larger and considerably tamer comedy-dramas about similar issues. “The Bounceback,” a step up in scale for the director, bears a closer resemblance to a studio-produced romcom, and suffers to some degree by comparison to his rowdier, unpredictable earlier works. However, compared to the current mainstream standards for the genre, the movie is a smart, refreshing cut above that channels the intelligence found in Poyser’s other movies into a more common mold.
It’s also a blatant love letter to his hometown, shot at major cultural hotspots of Austin’s downtown scene such as the Alamo Drafthouse, which really does host Air Sex Tournaments like the one featured in the movie. The formulaic plot gets an extra jolt of energy from the proverbial “Keep Austin Weird” mentality that informs each scene. It’s here that the soft-spoken Stan (Michael Stahl-David) arrives on a whim when he discovers that recent ex Cathy (Ashley Bell) has traveled there for the weekend to visit their mutual friend Kara (Sara Paxton). In the tradition of the classic comedy of remarriage, “The Bounceback” centers on Stan’s crazed attempt to rejuvenate a relationship that may or may not have already lost its potential. This is essence of Poyser’s “Lovers of Hate” as well, but “The Bounceback” trades that gloomy vision for a bittersweet approach.
In the swiftly edited opening montage, we witness Stan and Cathy’s initial courtship and sexual compatibility before learning of their parting of ways — Cathy to New York City to attend medical school and David to Los Angeles in vain pursuit of a filmmaking career. Still unable to move on, Stan spots Cathy’s Facebook announcement of her Austin plans and decides to launch a clandestine mission to win her back, crashing with Kara’s recent ex, the goofball Jeff (Zach Cregger) without explaining his real motives to anyone.
As with “Lovers of Hate,” in which one character hides in a condo while listening to his girlfriend cavort with his brother, the two protagonists spend much of the time in close proximity but not directly interacting with each other. Despite his attempts to track Cathy down, Stan winds up hauled around town by the reckless Jeff, who has been training with his peers for an air sex championship as a means of irreverent revenge against Kara. The air sex performances in the movie provide slapstick interludes in between the softer developments, as both Cathy and Stan meet potential new love interests during their wild nights out, forcing them to reconsider their priorities.
Setting aside the incredulous serendipity of these simultaneous developments, the parallel dramas unfold with competent will-they-or-won’t-they tension sustained by amusing performances — in both cases more from the actors positioned in secondary roles for comic relief. Cregger’s Jeff is the movie’s Jason Segel-like man-child, his air sex antics and foul-mouthed bids for horny excursions providing some of the funnier bits; he’s nicely complimented by Paxton, whose untempered demeanor keeps the situation unpredictable.
When the two women meet a pair of brothers during their first night out, Kara’s ability to assert control over her rambunctious suitor provides the movie with a comedic highlight only matched later by an air sex showdown with her former lover. Unfortunately, with such energy meted out to the supporting cast, both Jeff and Cathy come across as fairly bland creations stuck in a less inspired dramatic take on the same scenario. The screenplay, co-written by David DeGrow Shotwell and Steven Walters, takes fewer risks when exploring Jeff and Cathy’s conundrum, but hits an entertaining groove when toying with their mutual romantic dysfunction through a series of charmingly awkward text message exchanges that drive the plot forward.
While utterly watchable for most of its running time, “The Bounceback” rarely goes in any surprising directions, eventually arriving at the heartwarming finale that it has been hinting at all along. Clichéd lessons abound — “people always want what they can’t have,” says one of the crew — but the script treats them with a gentle touch that keeps the pace brisk and enjoyable. Poyser’s direction relies heavily on the engine of chatter driving the movie, but “The Bounceback” smartly shuts up when passing glances do the trick. Arriving at the uplifting conclusion that mainstream comedies reach for in simpler terms, “The Bounceback” displays a mature approach to average material. Poyser doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, but the familiar ingredients are done just right.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Ready-made for SXSW where it premiered, “The Bounceback” may have a tough time finding a wider audience, but its accessible narrative could help it perform decently on VOD.