A general rule of thumb: if Jeffrey Tambor appears in one or two scenes out of a film, it’s a safe bet those are the best one or two scenes overall. As a trespassing landlord fond of tenant hookups and unannounced showers in their homes, Tambor all but runs away with “Trouble Dolls,” the writing and directorial debut of Jess Weixler (“Teeth”) and Jennifer Prediger (“A Teacher”), but his scenes prove damaging—they bookend the film, leaving 80 minutes of fitfully wry and unusual humor in between.
The reason for Tambor’s brief part is due to his role as instigator. He lays out an ultimatum for the film’s central twentysomething roomies, Olivia and Nicole (Prediger and Weixler) to pay their substantial backlog of rent, or lose their NYC apartment. Not that the place has much value left anyway: jars of Olivia’s natural remedies spill all over not Nicole’s unfinished art projects, which have in turn been scrapped and turned into half-hearted furniture.
When Olivia’s ancient cat Seagull dies, the pair decides to head to Los Angeles for the weekend and assess their options at the upscale home of Nicole’s aunt Kimberley (Megan Mullally), who serves as a judge on one of the nation’s top talent television shows alongside, er, Lance Bass and Christopher “Kid n’ Play” Reid. Naturally Olivia and Nicole set themselves on a crash course toward gathering together an act and auditioning for the show, but as hinted at by the film’s title—referencing dolls in which life worries are placed—belief systems and superstition trump belting out tunes as the film’s heart.
Weixler and Prediger both satirize and identify with their comedy-drama by marking the different ways we outsource our anxieties, whether in tarot cards, show business, or simply a can full of cat ashes. Beneath the playful narrative and broad comic strokes, the duo manages to capture something tender about confusion and personal growth seen at different stages in life.
In their free reign over performances, script, and directorial choices though, Weixler and Prediger too often chase after laughs instead of letting them arise naturally. Perhaps aware that the standard comic road trip/TV competition route needs invention to stay fresh, they clutter scenes with a melee of stammering and wide eyes, forcing the material forward with visible effort.
Their chemistry together is obvious and charming at times, but we rarely gain traction on who Olivia and Nicole are outside of the next punch line. Threads like Nicole’s grudge against her family, deliberately gone on vacation without her, disappear quickly in favor of more drawn-out scenes—Mullally attempting to fashion Olivia in her own trendy, wire-frame glasses image, or the eventual, painful audition on the talent show “That Special Something.”
Because they’ve only the performance to think about, the film’s supporting cast turns in ace work. Weixler and Prediger have gathered a top line-up for their first directorial collaboration, one featuring Tambor, Mullally, Bob Byington, and a mama’s boy played by Will Forte, but the inherent issues in the script remain the same. Forte receives some off-kilter situations to tackle—he gives Olivia and Nicole a ride from LAX while on a cocktail of pills—but the best he and other co-stars can do with their half-cooked lines is use their expert comic timing to elevate them.
Even for such a brief runtime, somehow you want the film to hurry up and slow down simultaneously; it lingers in comedic moments that run stale while zipping through those that actually hit home. A late recitation from Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull” feels like the payoff that Prediger and Weixler were readying the entire time, and it is a case where the ending almost saves the entire affair. Not quite though—the close-knit duo know drama, but “Trouble Dolls” lacks the laughs to even it out. [C-]