Review by Justin Goodman
Since Her came out three years ago, there’s been a surprising lack of romantic-comedies that engage the most relevant aspect of contemporary relationships. That’s to say, technology. 3rd Street Blackout is this next attempt at a techno rom-com by throwing its protagonists, the neuroscientist Mina and programmer Rudy, into the lower Manhattan blackout left by Hurricane Sandy. But as charming as the film may be—borrowing heavily from the feminist-inclined discomfort-comedy of shows like The Mindy Project and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—Negin Farsad (Mina) and Jeremy Redleaf’s (Rudy) collaborative effort ends the story prematurely, without anything meaty to extract, giving the hour and a half adventure the feel of a half hour episode.
Mina is working on such groundbreaking science that she wins the opportunity to give a TED talk in New York about it; Rudy, with his programming buddies, wins a New York hack-a-thon with a finance app he and his friends call “Index” (although they think the name is stupid). It’s this close-but-not-really attitude that haunts Mina and Rudy. When they take a walk the morning after the blackout begins, Mina starts to feel alienated from the community around her by seeing just how in touch with everyone Rudy is. Among the most memorable characters you’ll find “The Chillmaster,” a phrase you’d likely hear Ilana utter on Broad City, sitting across the street with his boombox, and the aggressive and temperamental Gary Voonerjab, who runs a small store with his father and forces Mina to by a $10 mini flashlight through sheer insistence.
But it’s what 3rd Street Blackout doesn’t say that is what it foreshadows about rom-coms of the future. The most emotive moments of the film involve the characters texting or Skyping with each other, and the conflicts that arise between them is not the fault of technology but because of their shared humanity. At the TED Talk she meets the venture capitalist Nathan Blonket (Ed Weeks) who attempts to sleep with her, although she chooses not to. Instead of simply saying this to Rudy when he realizes that something happened between them, she fumbles. He gets grumpy and storms out. None of this is because phones distanced them. Rather, it’s the natural distance between people—wonderfully exemplified in Her—that goes largely ignored by people who argue (as Plato, the ancient Greek thinker, argued that writing ruins our memories) technology ruins us.
Farsad and Redleaf cheekily play on this. When Mina and Rudy are distanced from each other, he with his programmer friends and Mina with her newly-befriended neighbor, they have a courier carry their written notes back and forth. It makes a farce of writing, having the incorrigible Chuck shutter back and forth. In one scene he’s forced to awkwardly repeat “I love you” several times at the insistence of Rudy’s friends. It’s reminiscent of another Hurricane Sandy story. Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is equally smart, empathetic, technology-driven and focused on failed attempts at communication. Mostly though, both love to casually throw references around: in 3rd Street one of the characters quotes the 20th century Theologian Martin Buber who said “all real living is meeting,” and 10:04 is the time at which Marty McFly begins his trek back into the future. Far more colorfully and playfully, Farsad and Redleaf are doing the same thing.
And without being overly self-conscious, montage shots give away just how silly all of this is supposed to be. Among New York establishing shots is one of a German Shepherd grabbing a crushed traffic cone in its mouth and running off. The shot lasts just a second. That’s all you need. You just watched a camera shrug and say “yeah, that’s New York.” On a street corner, underlining Mina and Rudy’s moods, we are shown a woman playing the accordion. Prior to the fight she’s singing the word “love”; once Rudy storms out, she’s singing “anger.”
This is all to say that 3rd Street Blackout is a masterful compilation of absurdity and empathy. What it is not is a complete portrait. The film begins, in fact, with Rudy storming out. Only after forty minutes of packing the story with character and characters do we go back to the drama we began with and, while we’re not lost, it loses us. Mina and Rudy are silly and partial, as is the drama. The conclusion is one-handed, even if it causes you (like me) to tear up a little, and artificial. Mina says her lesson is not to take advantage of what’s in front of her. At no point prior to this, through all the cleverness and discomfort, did it seem that Mina takes advantage of anyone. She’s simply meek. So is Rudy. Should I be expecting the next episode for a resolution to this revelation?
I just keep thinking about a throwaway line likely intended to explain this: after the storm, the couple goes to the edge of Brooklyn’s reception area and makes calls home. Mina says “I feel like such dicks for complaining about a lack of Internet when people lost their homes and shit.” Many people feel that way that I know, a guilt that haunts many Americans due to their relative wealth. “Yeah, we are dicks,” Rudy responds, “lucky dicks.” And that’s the end of the discussion. Myopia is a trait they share. Sandy becomes a boxed-in experience with passing guilt because “all real living is meeting.” Not meeting new people, but being re-introduced to those you already thought you knew just as Mina is. So 3rd Street Blackout cloisters everyone in Manhattan and Brooklyn, ironically, with stereotypes of hipsters and all.