Alex Karpovsky knows his way around an ill-fated working road trip. Back in 2012, the indie multi-hyphenate pulled triple duty on his “Red Flag,” starring in a feature he also wrote and directed about a filmmaker taking his latest work on around the country on a makeshift tour that only did more (mostly amusing) harm than good. In Jeff Grace’s amiable “Folk Hero & Funny Guy,” Karpovsky is mining similar territory in a comedy elevated by pairing up the actor with rising star Wyatt Russell.
As childhood friends who have taken wildly divergent paths in life — Karpovsky’s Paul is a struggling standup comedian who just ended an engagement, Russell’s Jason is a mildly successful folk singer who is having a hell of a time traveling the country and jamming out, with groupies to spare — the pair have a lived-in, believable chemistry that hinges equally on their affection for and disappointment in each other. When Jason swings through town while on his fun (but decidedly no frills) tour, the differences in their lives become even more sharp, as a sad-eyed Paul is still reeling from bombing one of his few-and-far-between sets while Jason might as well walk into every room screaming, “Woo! Party!”
It comes as little surprise that Jason thinks that Paul could benefit from living more like him — which is sort of like living as a perpetually drunk golden retriever who also happens to play some solid folk songs, a character that the charismatic Russell pulls off with ease — but Paul’s decision to tag along for the remainder of Jason’s tour is a bit of a shock. It can’t hurt that he’s in such a bad way that even he recognizes that he needs a change, and the promise of spending more time with the fun-loving Jason would appeal to anyone.
But writer-director Jeff Grace smartly builds in an additionally alluring layer: Bryn (Meredith Hagner), a fellow singer that Jason also asks to join the pair on their mini tour. The sweet country crooner sparks with both Jason and Paul. “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” largely works on the strength of its cast’s chemistry, which delivers throughout every possible permutation, and Paul becomes convinced that she’s the real change his life so desperately needs.
Once the trio hits the road, the film’s blossoming love triangle helps drive it forward (literally, as the trio barrel down the eastern seaboard towards a particularly big gig for Jason), and Grace and his stars giddily keep up the momentum. Russell and Karpovsky’s flinty chemistry is only elevated by the addition of Hagner, whose comedic timing keeps both the dudes on their toes.
As obvious as it is that Paul’s well-meaning crush on Bryn and Jason’s smooth operator attitude will eventually lead to some kind of jealousy-fueled blowout, Grace wisely keeps the focus on their relationship for the majority of the film, instead of playing up the romantic elements of the situation. In return, the pair delivers an appealing buddy comedy with real heart, bolstered by performances that never veer into cliché.
“Folk Hero & Funny Guy” makes some later missteps, however, as a lingering secret that Jason keeps from both Paul and Bryn supplies the film with a dramatic twist in its final act. It’s a narrative shift change that the film doesn’t require, a big reveal that simply doesn’t jive with such a charming, character-driven comedy. It’s also one that detracts from the central bond of the film, leaning away from Paul and Jason’s relationship and into greater revelations about Jason and yet another person from his past.
Yet not even that ill-conceived plot twist can’t detract from an otherwise amiable feature that boasts the kind of old-school charm and chemistry that more comedies could stand to tap into. Russell and Karpovsky are a winning pair, and if they ever want to hit the road for more big jokes and even bigger revelations, any director would do well to let them take the wheel.
“Folk Hero & Funny Guy” will be released in New York City and Los Angeles, along with with digital and VOD release, on Friday, May 12.