When people at parties find out I review movies, I’m sometimes asked what my favorite genre is. I always say I don’t have a favorite, but that my least favorite are Westerns and horror flicks. Although I always add that I’ve seen movies in both those genres that I liked. Yet when I see a comedy that has me laughing the entire time I’m watching it, I always think that maybe comedy is my favorite genre. It’s just that so few ever qualify as “great” movies, although each year a few usually find their way on my Top 10 lists (this year it’s Palm Springs and Extra Ordinary). This film easily makes my Top 15.
There’s basically two types of comedies. The first type, which are among my favorites: Tootsie, Midnight Run, Office Space, Spinal Tap, The In-Laws, Big Lebowski, Some Like It Hot…all fall into a category I call realistic stories that have a lot of laughs. Another style of comedy is a lot harder to do. Those are movies that aren’t the least bit realistic in nature, but have a joke every few minutes: Blazing Saddles, Airplane, Step Brothers, In the Loop, What We Do in the Shadows, The Jerk.
What makes those comedies so great is that most of the jokes work, so you’re laughing non-stop. Mel Brooks has the distinction of having movies in both categories (The Producers is a story that seems realistic but is funny; Blazing Saddles has constant jokes, as do Space Balls and Young Frankenstein [although those are comedies that parody other films, which also fit that category of a joke a minute]).
Straight Up is a movie that is like those, as the scenarios feel completely realistic, yet it’s got a joke flying at you every minute, and they’re almost all funny. Of course, you could probably argue that there aren’t two people like this in real life. Nobody could be that intelligent and witty, with such rapport, if it weren’t rehearsed. But when you’re making me (and my wife) laugh so much, I really don’t care.
It’s amazing to think this is the debut film from James Sweeney. He wrote, directed, and stars in this as Todd. When we first meet him on screen, I cringed. He looked and sounded so much like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory (a show I’ve never found that funny). Yet he quickly wins you over with his intelligent and humorous takes on life.
He’s seeing a psychiatrist (Tracie Thoms) and I love that they don’t make her an idiot. Other comedies would try to do that for laughs. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t crack you up a few times. When she laughs at one of his outrageous statements, Todd sternly says, “I don’t pay you to laugh at me!” She responds, “No, your parents pay me.”
Another interaction has him talking about going to visit his parents and she tells him to have fun and “Remind them they haven’t paid me for September. I sent them an invoice, but…”
One of the things Todd is bringing up to his two friends and his shrink, is that he thinks he might not be gay (which is a funny enough declaration, if you see and watch how he acts). He decides he’s going to try dating women, saying it will at least improve the amount of dates he gets. That’s actually an old Woody Allen line. And, there’s a scene later in the movie where a woman meets a guy and asks if he’d kill a baby if his life depended on it. It’s a great scene, but reminded me of Jennifer Westfeld’s brilliant film Friends With Kids (Jon Hamm, Adam Scott, Kristen Wiig). There’s only one other line the movie had that’s an old joke, and that’s when Todd thinks he’s a bad person because he lies. It’s to homeless people that ask him for change, when he tells them he doesn’t have any. Yet it was surprising how originally almost all of this banter was, and how brilliantly it was done. I remember being in movie theatres for certain films and people laughed so hard, you couldn’t hear the next line (some examples include: Clerks, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and This is the End). I suspect, if movie theatres were opened, we would have the same “problem” with this film. Although I said to my wife afterwards, “There were a few times when they talked so fast, I was worried I might miss a joke.” She laughed, saying that we probably did miss a few.
Okay, so…back to the story. Todd is checking out self-help books in the library, and Rory (Katie Findlay) thinks he works there. Since she was fired from a waitressing job (she’s also a struggling actress), she wants to turn in an application. They start talking and realize they have a lot in common (not just that they both love Gilmore Girls). They become friends with….out benefits. And it’s played well in that regard, because she probably likes that she has met a guy that isn’t just trying to get down her pants (although in all likelihood, she would have realized he was gay upon their first meeting). He doesn’t want to have sex for a number of reasons. He had an incident with a woman previously (which is hysterical). He also doesn’t like “bodily fluids” of any kind. Oh, and he’s probably just attracted to men.
Another refreshing thing about this film is how the supporting characters are written. As much as I enjoyed Seinfeld, I could never buy that they’d put up with Kramer (or George, for that matter). Yet with Todd’s friends, they could be annoying but still believable as buddies. Meg (Dana Drori) is a model, and can be mean-spirited and a bit ditzy. Ryder (James Scully) is gay, and can be a bit crude and also mean-spirited; although that’s because he resents the fact that Todd won’t accept the fact that he’s gay.
The chemistry and energy between Todd and Rory is just a blast. And what also makes things fun are when we see Rory at her improv acting class or going to auditions. A scene doing improv makes a few people uncomfortable with her joke about “rape” and it’s hysterical how the people in the class react. At an audition, where she runs into someone she used to go to school with, it’s clever on a few levels. First, at how easily the other girl is finding success in that tough industry. Second, as they talk we keep hearing screams coming from the other room (which reminded me of the great De Palma movie Blow Out [John Travolta]). You think they’re auditioning for a horror film, but it’s a commercial, where they’re screaming because someone has bad breath. It’s way over-the-top, but apparently what they’re looking for.
There are times the camera whips back and forth as the quick banter is flying, or we see split-screens in a very clever way. One of those times is when they agree to have sex for the first time. She’s turning the knob on the stereo, to play something romantic, as he’s turning the faucet on in the shower, to clean every inch of his body. You get anxious wondering…whether the sparks (and fluids) are going to fly
When Todd and Rory go to dinner at Todd’s parents, that’s a lot funnier than you can imagine. Sure, it helps that they’re played by the talented Betsy Brandt (Breaking Bad) and the always funny Randall Park. He goes on a racist rant that would be funny enough on its own, but the way Rory eggs him on, is something I’ve done with people who go off on bizarre tangents. It was brilliantly conceived; and when we see Rory and Todd later in bed, doing their nightly ritual of back massages, it’s painfully sad hearing Todd speculate that his parents were being nicer because it’s a woman he brought home.
There’s another moment (that I have to be careful not to spoil), where you’re also laughing and crying at the same time, near the end of the film.
Often, when I’m watching a comedy, I can think of funnier jokes for certain scenes. This movie was so brilliant, I was often scratching my head wondering how Sweeney even thought of such lines. For example, we’ve seen movies, or shows like Family Guy, make jokes about whether or not an actor like Tom Cruise is secretly gay. Yet for Sweeney to use Paul Newman as the punchline for that, is so unique and humorous. I literally laughed for two minutes when the second Newman “Butch Cassidy” joke came in.
For what was probably a small budget, it’s nice that they were able to get some beautiful houses to shoot in, and the vibrant colors in a few scenes made things interesting.
This movie made me think of a hysterical comedy I saw in the mid-90s, out of Germany. It was called Maybe…Maybe Not in America. Everywhere else it was called The Most Desired Man. It has a supporting character that a few of the gay guys think is really straight, even though he claims to be gay. And how they continue on with their “suspicions” and how they conclude with that character, had the Hillcrest Landmark theatre I was watching it in, laugh for a solid minute.
This gets 4 stars out of 5, and it’s currently on Netflix.
Side note: I’m guessing, because James Sweeney is so damn clever, that he named his character Todd, because of “Sweeney Todd.”