Jim Hosking’s 2016 debut “The Greasy Strangler” was as grotesque as it sounded, a gross-out comedy in the vein of John Waters that folded slasher tropes into an unexpectedly resonant father-son bonding tale. His sophomore effort, “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn,” tamps down his gnarlier instincts for viscerally unsettling material and ratchets up the whimsy. The result is sometimes overlong and wears out its welcome, but it clarifies Hosking’s distinctive tone — a playful and often charming blend of outré humor and genuine emotion that makes him one of the most distinctive new voices in current cinema.
The evening in question provides the climax for a series of oddball circumstances that consume the bulk of the running time. It begins with a slapstick portrait of desperation: Shane Danger (Emile Hirsch), the cafe owner in a rural town, learns that he must cut back on his staff to make ends meet. So he cans his wife, Lulu Danger (Aubrey Plaza), who couldn’t care less anyway. Hirsch, his eyes darting wildly as he shuffles with a nervous tic, throws himself into the role of cartoon villain — but he’s second fiddle to Plaza, whose typical eye-rolling antics sync with the ironic tone.
Lulu’s lost interest in her life with Shane, and barely pays him heed as he whines about money troubles over dinner. Late at night, she sees a TV commercial for the eponymous event, and instantly recognizes Beverly (Craig Robinson) as a mysterious figure from her past. She recalls him fondly, but details are scant, and they don’t even matter much. He represents escape.
In short order, Shane concocts a lunatic scheme to bail them out of financial troubles with a ludicrous robbery, and an inexplicably awkward hitman named Colin (Jermaine Clement) emerges to get it back. When Colin arrives at the Danger household, Lulu takes control of the situation for her own means, forcing Colin at gunpoint to take her to the hotel to pursue Beverly up close.
These events unfold at a rapid-fire pace in which everyone seems both astonished and a little sleepy. Hosking has an eye for bumbing physical comedy and bursts of caustic wit. Shane’s plans to track down his wayward wife with the help of his klutzy cafe staff plays out like a manic Three Stooges routine, even as the surreal American backdrop echoes David Lynch.
Once they arrive at the hotel, things are more prosaic. Lulu forces the baffled Colin to be her accomplice in a dubious scheme to confront Beverly in the days leading up to his performance. Robinson, clearly having a blast, spends most of the movie unleashing prolonged grunts instead of dialogue for reasons only made clear by the end; he’s accompanied by flamboyant partner Rodney (Matt Berry) who speaks on the performer’s behalf, prolonging the enigma of the coming performance.
Much of this is an excuse for various eccentric vignettes, some better than others. Colin develops a crush on Lulu, and his attempts to make friendly talk with her at the hotel bar with an utterly banal story from his infancy ventures into “Napoleon Dynamite” territory. Shane enlists portly assistant Tyrone (Zach Cherry) to spy on the hotel residents. A kooky concierge (Jacob Wysock) charms and berates new arrivals. Cafe staffer Carl (Sky Elobar, “The Greasy Strangler”) unleashes his disturbing take on breakdancing (“It’s body-popping,” he insists). Beverly deals with his nerves by diving into the hotel pool and emerging with a triumphant roar. And so on.
The pileup of circumstances would quickly become grating if weren’t all taking place within the confines of Hosking’s skewed world. Everything about “Beverly Luff Linn” feels slightly off, from scenes that continue far beyond their apparent punchlines to banter littered with wordplay and an ominous electronic score by Andy Hung. The finale isn’t nearly as satisfying as Hosking’s overall vision, but the path is strewn with endearing characters.
Clement refines his deadpan stylings to create a touching loner trapped in a world that treasures mean-spirited gags, while Plaza’s Lulu endows the movie with a soulful yearning that bolsters its goofiness with purpose. For every grating bit, there’s another exchange with an air of legitimate melancholy. Everyone in Hosking’s world wants something just beyond the realm of possibility, and that’s an especially pronounced issue in this otherworldly realm of a movie. “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn” adheres to a logic of total absurdity, but it’s just everyday life for the characters struggling through it.
“An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.