“So what’s the deal with Evites?” Stand up Paul (Alex Karpovsky) is bombing — at life. Dumped by his fiancée, working a dead end temp job, and flogging the same tired stand up routine at open mics around town, he’s going nowhere until an old friend invites him on a ride. The old friend is Jason Black (Wyatt Russell) a folk musician with a cult following who brings Paul on tour as an opening act to get his “mojo” back.
“Folk Hero & Funny Guy” writer/director Jeff Grace is an actor (“It’s a Disaster”) and stand-up comic, and mines his own experiences for his directorial debut in this appealing road trip flick. The film hews closely to the road movie format, and calls to mind films like “The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best” and even Karpovsky’s own film “Red Flag,” which share themes about finding inspiration and energy outside of one’s own comfort zone.
There’s a warm, if prickly chemistry between Russell and Karpovsky, who draw out new elements in each other’s personas. Russell holds his own in the comedy department against the dry sarcasm of Karpovsky’s Paul, while Russell’s sunny nature warms up Karpovsky, who surprises in bringing a new emotional range to his persona.
At their first stop in New Jersey, the performers meet a budding singer/songwriter, Bryn (Meredith Hagner), at an open mic, and while Paul crushes on her, Jason makes the move, and invites her along as another opener. The love triangle complicates the friendship, and Bryn’s resistance to Paul’s passive nice guy agenda frustrates him. The criss-crossing relationships are filled equally with affection, resentment and competition, and feel emotionally authentic.
The film does right by its female characters, especially Bryn, and Melanie Lynskey who wows in one scene as Becky, the longtime object of Jason’s affection. Hannah Simone is given little to do as Paul’s beleaguered ex, and a tryst with a party girl played by Heather Morris is a silly diversion that serves only to deliver some hilarious snaps of Jason and Paul in compromising positions.
But Bryn and Becky are fully realized characters who start out as muses, crushes and flirtations, but are real people with motivations of their own and strong heads on their shoulders who are willing to put the guys in their place. A climactic scene on the last stop of the tour in Charleston results in a blow up between the guys when Becky tells Jason she’s not content to wait around for him for a one night at a time. As they squabble over Bryn, she informs them that since it’s up to her, neither has a chance. Grace grants his female characters as much agency as the men, a notable and refreshing element of the film.
The songs, written by Adam Ezra, are performed excellently by Russell and Hagner — it would be great to see either of these two sing again soon. Russell in particular surprises with his musical talents, effortlessly inhabiting the role of the hard-living barefoot bard who always has another wild tale about life on the road.
Grace uses a flashback to frame the story, with the two friends each telling their version of the trip to an audience, and it’s a clever way to both contain the film and draw out the contrasts in perspective and performance between the two. There’s also a split screen editing device used to compare their lives that bookends the start and end of the trip.
“Folk Hero & Funny Guy” is an amiable road movie powered by great music. But it’s much more than just that, with deeply felt, lived in emotions capturing the ups and downs of longterm friendships, the nervous spark of a new attraction, and the power of making amends. It’s a fine showcase for the ranges of Russell and Karpovsky, as well as the winsome Hagner, and signals Grace as a filmmaker to watch. [B]
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