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SXSW Review: Cheap Stab at Sibling Rivalry ‘Awful Nice’ Mostly Stumbles in Search of Laughs

SXSW Review: Cheap Stab at Sibling Rivalry 'Awful Nice' Mostly Stumbles in Search of Laughs

Director Todd Sklar’s short film, brazenly titled “’92 Skybox Alonso Mourning Rookie Card,” followed a pair of estranged brothers drawn together by the untimely passing of their father. At less than 13 minutes, it managed to economically set up two aimless characters and let them run wild to comic effect, culminating with a kitchen food fight for the ages. Before either their crude personalities or the relentless virile jokes grew tiresome, it was over. No such luck with “Awful Nice,” Sklar’s feature-length treatment of the material, which resembles the short in spirit but takes its puerile energy to a tedious extreme.

At the same time, Sklar and his cast display an admirable commitment to the zany task at hand, attempting to inject nearly ever scene with caustic wit. Brothers Jim (James Pumphrey) and Dave (Alex Rennie) are both unruly in their own distinct ways that pull them out of reality. While Jim, a settled family man, tries to keep things steady, he’s constantly dragged into his wilder brother’s insane tendencies. As the movie begins, Jim pulls Dave out of a teepee where the alcoholic slacker has been hiding out and tells him about their father’s passing, then convinces him to travel down to Branson, Missouri to obtain their inheritance by paying the lazy guy off.

The inheritance in question, a shabby lake house, needs some work before they can sell it off, and their decision to handle the repairs themselves sets up the series of misadventures that form the bulk of the story — if you can call it that. Mainly, “Awful Nice” takes the form of various rambunctious vignettes, some funnier than others, with an intentionally sloppy approach that calls to mind the Duplass brothers’ vein of unseemly masculine comedy minus the tight control over character motivation.

Like the Duplass’ “The Do Deca Penathlon,” warring brothers continue to bicker until the tension between them erupts in awkward violence. But Sklar’s rough and wild approach is more along the lines of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” with a wacky gag a minute — most of them involving the especially rash and hedonistic Dave, who buries his incapacity to put his life together in booze and drug-fueled outbursts. Whether popping pills and stumbling through a grocery store or hurtling himself into fist fights he’s destined to lose, Dave’s impulsive behavior frequently hijacks the plot, and while some of his outbursts are inherently amusing, collectively they lessen the capacity for caring much about the proceedings.

The effect is further complicated by a screenplay littered with ingratiating dude dialogue devoid of much insight into these intensely neurotic characters. (Sample: “Dad’s dead.” “That sucks.” “Yeah, man, it fucking sucks.”) Rough production values, which in the right situation can blend into the material, here stand out as yet another piece of an unformed equation. Yet “Awful Nice” unapologetically remains tied to its loose approach, taking the form of an off-kilter series of chaotic events, some more inspired than others.

The standout moments are those found in the original short, including the aforementioned food fight and the movie’s opening minutes. Other erratic ingredients lack such entertaining fluidity. The sunglasses-laden lawyer (Christopher Meloni) responsible for handing over the estate is a thinly conceived cartoon, a description that could be applied to the movie in general. Viewed in segments, “Awful Nice” has enough enjoyable recklessness to illustrate its filmmaker’s commitment to droll misdirection right down to the amusingly understated climax. As a whole, however, the one-note lunacy fails to coalesce, proving that the material not only worked better in short form — it belonged there.

Criticwire grade: C

HOW WILL IT PLAY? A good fit for the rowdy SXSW crowd for which it premiered, the movie will probably play at smaller festivals over the next several months ahead of a modest release, but Sklar’s history with self-distribution with his previous film suggests that “Awful Nice” may end up having a life around the country through the efforts of its creator. 

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