The obnoxious man-child is a common trope in American comedies, but few recent examples can match the hilariously unsettling presence of Donald Treebeck, the obnoxious central figure played by writer-director Kris Avedisian in his effective black comedy “Donald Cried.” Avedisian’s feature-length debut builds on the distinctively off-putting persona first seen in his short film, a bespectacled pariah stuck in perpetual arrested development. While hardly reinventing the wheel, “Donald Cried” spins it faster than usual, taking cues from its memorably irritating protagonist. Beneath its entertainment value, the movie also hints at the tragedy of aimless adulthood.
While the story technically unfolds from the perspective of his old teen pal Peter (Jesse Wakeman), who returns to their Rhode Island suburbs from his Wall Street career after his grandmother dies, Donald welcomes his reluctant friend back to their world and won’t leave him alone. Avedisian gives Danny McBride a run for his money in this pitch-perfect embodiment of a wannabe charmer all too eager to remain the center of attention.
The sheer awkwardness generated by Donald’s every utterance, and the lingering sense that he could turn even the plainest interaction into another unpleasant moment, provides “Donald Cried” with its amusing raison d’être. No matter how much Peter tries to avoid him, Donald runs the show, and by extension, the movie.
Tasked with the unenviable role of playing the straight man, Peter finds himself in a compromised position even before Donald latches onto him. Showing up at his late grandmother’s house, he realizes he left his wallet on the plane; running into Donald on the street, Peter has no choice but to allow his former friend to cart him around town. The ensuing daylong odyssey finds the pair visiting the hospital, running into several former high school acquaintances, and enduring a series of feuds that only add to the pervasive sense of misery. Donald, however, maintains a frozen grin and relentless energy that constantly pierces the dour atmosphere, to the point where he becomes a welcome punchline in his every scene.
With his tousled hairdo and unkempt beard, Donald’s comedic instincts hint at psychopathic tendencies just beneath the surface, and sometimes above it. One scene in which he interrogates Peter about his profession (“serious cash and shit”) gets increasingly uncomfortable when Donald giddily proposes they rob Peter’s office, and it’s never quite clear if he’s really joking about it. Another striking sequence finds Donald playing around with a gun, unless of course he’s not really playing around at all.
The boundaries between cringe-inducing humor and serious danger define the strange alchemy of Donald’s insuppressible attitude, which deepens as the movie goes on. Small details about the duo’s past reveal psychological wounds that have yet to heal, and while these ingredients risk the clichés of a buddy comedy, Avedisian wisely avoids any big sentimental takeaways, allowing the unresolved tension between the men to speak for itself. Until they come to blows, that is.
Donald’s relentless energy is the engine that drives the story forward. As a result, the movie never maintains quite the same appeal when he drops out of the picture. Peter’s attempts to romance a local real estate agent (Louisa Krause) lacks the same intrigue, and his stuck-up, introverted manner offer little in the way of depth.
But Avedisian shrewdly uses this archetype to heighten Donald’s maniacal behavior. As details from his life slowly reveal themselves, his situation appears sadder than superficial details might suggest, and “Donald Cried” suggests the shadings of a psychological thriller stuffed into the mold of a boisterous R-rated comedy. On the level of plot, “Donald Cried” offers nothing new. However, it’s a lot shrewder than the industry standard for this kind of testosterone-fueled humor, primarily because its main character never acknowledges that he’s the butt of his own jokes — and maybe because, on some level, he’s known it all along.