Early in writer-director’s Jeff Baena’s “Joshy”—the most depressing, or at least most depressed, hangout movie ever made—Josh’s (Thomas Middleditch) friends bring him to a bar near the mountain house they’ve rented for the weekend and raise a toast “to nothing.” They should be toasting Josh’s upcoming wedding, but his fiancee (Alison Brie) ruined the whole affair by offing herself before the opening titles finish. The gathering, initially planned as a bachelor party, has turned into a supremely uncomfortable pity party, during which Josh and his buddies get hammered, try to score, take a hike, hang in the hot tub, and generally do their damnedest to force themselves to have a good time—anything to avoid confronting the extremely dolorous elephant in the room.
What sounds on the page like a tired retread of Apatowian bromance and belated edge-of-adulthood anxieties is in the hands of Baena and his terrific cast—a murderer’s row of comic ringers featuring Nick Kroll, Adam Pally, Alex Ross Perry, and Brett Gelman as Josh’s core gang with everyone from Jenny Slate to Paul Reiser to Lauren Graham making appearances throughout—a disarmingly hilarious and sensitive film about forced good times and not coping with your problems. Kicking things off with a suicide—and a genuinely shocking one; Brie, who appears onscreen for only about a minute, is the last person you expect to be playing someone who kills herself—is something of a cheat, an easy way to cast a dark pallor over the rest of the film.
“Joshy” is not so much a movie about suicide or even the aftermath of a suicide per se as a movie that uses suicide to explore contemporary male anxieties about dealing with their own emotions. (At one point, Gelman’s character screams at a morose Josh, “It’s not okay to be sad!”) This certainly opens up Baena to the charge that he’s deploying a serious mental health issue as a simple device, and Baena eventually gives in to this impulse with a teary third-act monologue from Middleditch that feels like an obligatory sop to the idea that suicide is a serious issue that must be dealt with solemnly. But “Joshy” is at it’s best when it’s at its least solemn, when its characters are doing everything in their power to avoid solemnity and seriousness.
At its heart, “Joshy” is a hangout film, one that is particularly attuned to the the prickly dynamics of a group of funny, idiosyncratic oddballs, each with his own relationship issues and deep neuroses. Middleditch is understandably morose but attempts to mask it under an unpersuasive casualness. As a performer, Middleditch, best known from “Silicon Valley” has mastered the art of leaving a strong impression even as he recedes into the background, and he brings that paradoxical quality to his role here. Kroll is an inveterate planner, trying a bit too hard as he hits up Yelp and Tripadvisor to formulate a fun weekend for his friends. Yet anybody who’s been trapped in a group of people that has no idea what to do with themselves knows that a friend like this is key to the success of any gathering. Perry plays a chronic nerd, a wet blanket unwilling to engage in even such basic “fun” activities as sitting in a hot tub or taking a hike. It’s a great twist on the distinctive anti-charm he demonstrated in his own “The Color Wheel.” Pally seems the most level-headed of the bunch until he reveals himself to be kind of a skeez. Gelman, an interloper brought in by Kroll to juice up the good times, is teetering on the brink of insanity. When Swanberg appears belatedly with his wife and kid in tow to find a house full of cocaine, bongs, empty beer bottles, and guys passed out, he seems hopelessly out of step even though he’s clearly the most well-adjusted guy in the group.
Watching these varied performers bounce off each other in different combinations is fun, even as the absence at the center of the film adds a layer of desperation to their interactions. In a way, the comedy arises out of this central trauma, not in spite of it. The proceedings enjoys a jolt of energy from Slate, who is quirkily magnetic in a central role that disrupts the group’s balance in a vital way even as she is absorbed into its orbit. It may seem like a backhanded compliment to call a movie “well-cast,” but it is no slight to say that “Joshy”‘s greatest quality is its performers. This movie would be completely altered with different actors, and while that’s obviously true of any movie, it’s particularly significant for this one, which depends so heavily on its cast for its delicate balance of sadness and insouciance. It’s an unusual balance and deceptively difficult to pull off, but “Joshy” manages to be both an incredibly funny lost weekend and a penetrating study of masculine fears of emotional engagement.
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