The premise of “The Climb” has been told so many times it’s a small miracle that this one works at all: Two lifelong buddies test the boundaries of their friendship when a woman comes between them. Yet Michael Covino’s absorbing directorial debut confronts that challenge with stunning cinematic ambition, resulting in a brilliant reinvention of the buddy comedy. Testosterone-fueled dude movies have occupied every facet of the filmmaking landscape in recent years, from the Duplass brothers to “Step Brothers,” but “The Climb” transforms that trope into a fresh vision of boozy showdowns and awkward laments, resulting in a winning tragicomic vision of its own design.
The starting point for “The Climb” goes back to a 2017 Sundance short film, with a clever scenario so economical it never could have hinted at the grand design to follow: Longtime pals Mike (Covino) and Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin) bike up a steep hill as Mike, the fitter of the two, speeds ahead, while confessing that he’s been sleeping with Kyle’s fiancé. In seven tight minutes, the short envisioned a pair of dopey, breathless man-children whose tight bond is tested under the silliest of circumstances. Where could it possibly go from there? As it turns out: Many exciting places, as this sharp two-hander veers from caustic to sweet with acrobatic filmmaking to spare.
The simplicity of its opening bit works to the movie’s advantage, as it careens into an unpredictable seriocomic assemblage of elaborate time jumps, dexterous camerawork, and testosterone-fueled brawls, all while exploring the fragility beneath masculine surfaces. That disastrous biking trip ends up providing the ideal introduction to the pair’s oddball chemistry: Kyle, an affable romantic whose easygoing nature suggests a next-gen John C. Reilly, resists alpha-male Mike’s shadow, and within a matter of minutes, their friendship looks as if it’s done for good.
But “The Climb” wastes no time advancing their situation: One awkward funeral later, and they’ve reunited at Kyle’s family home for a busy Thanksgiving dinner under very different circumstances. Now a sloven alcoholic, Mike’s been drafted by Kyle’s scheming mother (Talia Balsam, in a brief but endearing turn) to dissuade his ex-pal from marrying old high school flame Marissa (Gayle Rankin).
Against the backdrop of a hectic family gathering that could even make Robert Altman fans dizzy, Mike’s plan goes very wrong several times over, in a bizarre series of drunken altercations that arrive with the immediacy of slapstick and the underpinnings of personal tragedy. Through it all, Marissa emerges as a fascinating character in her own right — a foul-mouthed Lady Macbeth playing both sides against each other even as her own agenda remains elusive.
While the scenario is intriguing, the real magic of “The Climb” comes from the canny formalism under which it unfolds. Recent low-budget American psychodramas like “Krisha” and “Thunder Road” mined similar material, but Covino funnels it into a wider tapestry of narrative traditions. The roving camerawork and elliptical storytelling has more in common with European arthouse techniques, at times calling to mind Sweden’s Ruben Ostlund and Austria’s Ulrich Seidl. As Covino spices up the fragmented story with uncertainties about whether Mike and Kyle could ever heal their various rifts, each new entry in their relationship crescendoes to the punchline of a bleak existential joke.
The scenery keeps shifting to new snippets of domestic unrest, as weddings, funerals, and bachelor parties become the settings for dynamic confrontations. Years fly by in seconds, and at times it seems as though “The Climb” could follow its wayward friends all the way to the grave. It doesn’t quite go that far, but there’s so much genuine inventiveness to each sequence that it remains an unpredictable ride even when it leaves the formula unchanged. “The Climb” manages to develop its intrigue by framing characters in unexpected terms: One memorable sequence opens with Kyle performing a pole dance to Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby,” and another begins with a snowy kidnapping sequence that looks as though it was lifted from “Funny Games.”
The camera becomes a beguiling window into the movie’s tantalizing themes: When it follows a dog out of the house to find Mike guzzling booze in the parking lot, or tracks him as he delivers a searing monologue without realizing his friend hasn’t heard a word, “The Climb” reaches the apotheosis of its hypnotic flow. Each new sequence evokes the experiences of characters lost in the chaos of their fast-paced lives, in a world that never waits for them to catch up.
All of this might come across as little more than restless film school showmanship if Covino and Marvin didn’t have such appealing onscreen chemistry, and a commitment to the chapter-based approach that basically allows them to get away with anything. The occasional fourth-wall breaking musical number threatens to derail the more grounded story in play, but it instead deepens its oddball energy with surreal punctuations. This is, after all, a timeless morality play.
Even when the drama careens into overwrought or clichéd territory, “The Climb” works overtime to mine poetry from the buddy movie genre. When the lessons come, they’re spiced with the uncertainty of men at odds with the world around them. “Sometimes, when you think you’re doing the wrong thing, it’s actually what’s needed,” one character says, and that concept percolates throughout a movie in which the only thing Mike and Kyle seem to get right is that they need each other. It all comes back to that seven-minute short, and the virtues of pedaling at higher cadence despite ever-steeper hills: “The Climb” is a testament to chasing stability and in the process, realizing that even the most excruciating hurdles are worth the sweaty effort.
“The Climb” premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.