Timothy Olyphant and Jeff Garlin in "Dealin' With Idiots."
It's hard to make people laugh, so no wonder few filmmakers try. While plenty of new releases contain elements of humor in their DNA, from Andrew Bujalski's irreverent "Computer Chess" to Noah Baumbach's sardonic "Frances Ha," the last few months have been weak on new comedies. Even studios have entered an uneasy stage with the genre, as they either rely on franchises (see the ill-received but nonetheless commercially successful "Grown Ups 2") or simply relax standards to the point where utterly bizarre meta-comedy can slip through (the sublimely weird "This Is the End," an unlikely hit and by all accounts an anomaly). Yet two new movies opening this week explore the genre's potential in surprising, thoughtful ways that, although not always successful, offer an intriguing alternative for laughter in American movies this summer.
Kristen Wiig's talents may have been celebrated several years ago for her pivotal role in the breakout commercial hit "Bridesmaids," but in "Girl Most Likely," she ventures beyond the familiar beats of mainstream comedy for a curiously self-reflexive character piece. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini in what's certainly the couple's most unpredictable feature since "American Splendor," the story's a giant mess of formulaic ingredients rearranged as a cartoonish commentary on them. It doesn't really work, but there's a liberating aspect to the way this lesser known Wiig vehicle churns up familiar twists into a zany remix.
Originally titled "Imogene" during its festival run, "Girl Most Likely" features the title heroine over the course of a dramedy in which the late thirties heroine gets dumped by her boyfriend and loses her posh urban lifestyle. Forced move back in with her negligent mother (a raunchy Annette Benning), she crams into the ramshackle New Jersey home with her peculiar man-child brother (a hilarious Christopher Fitzgerald) and the slick CIA agent (Matt Dillon) whom her mom has decided to marry. Soon learning that the father she long suspected dead actually lives a successful life back in Manhattan, Imogene decides to go find the guy, but Wiig performs the moment where this decision takes place as if her character has been willed into the hackneyed goal by the demands of a tired genre.
As she gradually finds new satisfaction by falling for her mom's new tenant, the suave Lee (Darren Criss), "Girl Most Likely" establishes the elements for a drab sentimental journey, then defies expectations with a looney climax that turns those expectations into a grand joke. Whether "Girl Most Likely" intentionally satirizes its upending of conventions or suffers from a half-assed screenplay, the resulting hodgepodge at least livens up a clichéd premise.
But while the appeal of "Girl Most Likely" may come about as a happy accident, another new comedy this week displays an impressive amount of control. Jeff Garlin isn't a particularly showy director, just as the portly comedian's personable style avoids grand gestures. But in "Dealin' With Idiots," his second feature after the sleeper hit "I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With," Garlin cleverly investigates the process of grasping for joke material in a void, an idea with inherently amusing potential. As with "Cheese," the new movie also manages a curious balance between sweet, relatable storytelling and absurd situational humor. Though low key to the point where it's hard to hype, "Dealin' With Idiots" retains a gentle simplicity impossible to shrug off. Garlin, best known as Larry David's lackadaisical right hand man on the acerbic "Curb Your Enthusiasm," has made the equivalent of a "Curb" episode with heart.
Garlin's ultra-restrained approach suggests that attempting hilarity is sometimes a veiled defense mechanism.
In a blatant nod to "Curb" as well as his own career, Garlin plays neurotic well-known comedian Max Morris, a scatter-brained man desperately seeking new material while attending his adolescent son's baseball games. Though frustrated that the kid can't get a hit, Morris recognizes that the strange ecosystem of obsessed parents swirling around the culture of the games would make a great movie. As Max launches a thinly defined research project by visiting the homes of various chatty, occasionally hot-tempered and off-beat parents, "Dealin' With Idiots" hints at the possibility that we might be watching the very movie Max wants to make. At the same time, Garlin's ultra-restrained approach -- akin to his method with "Cheese" -- suggests that attempting hilarity is sometimes a veiled defense mechanism, in his case a means of avoiding his deep-seated insecurities about whether or not he's a loving parent and all around nice guy.
This revelation is in itself quite funny: Most of the movie takes place at the baseball field and the various suburban homes where Max pays awkward visits to his subjects as he gradually comes to the realization that he has less interest in exploiting other people's eccentricities than working through his own. His climactic freak-out manages to take a previously static narrative about the mundanity of family life to enjoyably surprising comedic heights. Instead of finding the funny in others, he uncovers it by losing his shit. With wry understatement in nearly every scene, "Dealin' With Idiots" shows how great comedy emerges from situations in which the subjects take themselves dead seriously. He's a victim of his own quest for a punchline.
However, he's not alone. "Dealin' With Idiots" is powered by a cast of terrific character actors: Insecure parents played by Fred Willard and Richard Kind are matched by Bob Odenkurk and "Curb" regular J.B. Smoove as the eccentric coaches. Not every one of their random, energetic outbursts works, but collectively they turn this humble movie into a rich showcase for oddball personalities.
There's a gentle quality to Garlin's portrait of discontented Americans. Their pouty demeanor prevents them from seeing the pithy nature of their problems, but by satirizing that disconnect, Garlin shows that the best comedy doesn't gloss over problems so much as bury them in wit.
"Dealin' With Idiots": B+
"Girl Most Likely": B-