Sunday 15 May 2011

Heavy Times (2010)

Directors: Ryan McKenna and Benjamin Mark
Stars: Jay Brunner, Brian D Evans, Adam Lauver, Keaton Farmer and Jeff Koen

The trailer for Heavy Times is about as blatant a trailer as I've ever seen. What it suggests the film will be is comedian Jeff Koen (I use the description as provided) abusing three professional victims for the entire length of a feature. He stamps his authority over it so emphatically that the rest of the cast appear to be nothing more than background art. I couldn't help but assume the film would be a ninety minute adaptation of a particularly unsubtle stand up routine, though the synopsis did promise an insightful ride for the lead characters through an 'outrageous series of events none of them were prepared for'. Fortunately the actual film transcends the trailer and comes pretty close to living up to the synopsis, partly because Rick, Koen's character, doesn't appear for twenty minutes, thus giving writer/directors Ryan McKenna and Benjamin Mark some time to develop character and direction before he coats their picture in bodily fluids.

The three main characters are Dan, Mark and Hugh, believable young losers who seem to have made a career out of underachievement. Hugh is a PE teacher with the unfortunate surname of Siemen who is stuck making primary school kids do jumping jacks. Mark is so bad at being a car salesman that he can only sell to himself. Dan is an unenthusiastic human sign. Of the three actors only Brian D Evans, who plays Dan, has any prior credits, but all of them are surprisingly capable at bringing life to the subtle material they're given to work with. They're hardly dynamic but they're not supposed to be and while I appreciated them from the get go, it was Hugh's epic fail in a rap battle at a party that totally sold them for me. This is the most enjoyable faceoff I've seen on film by far, even if it's there primarily to help underline these three friends as socially inept, however much they try. Hollywood would turn them into cartoons; here they're real.
And so to Rick O'Leary. He's Dan's brother-in-law, who overwhelms the film like a tsunami when Mark and Hugh inadvisedly tag along with Dan to see his sister Megan's new house. If Dean Wormer had met Rick he'd have appointed Bluto to the board. He's a bloated, obnoxious, truly inappropriate stereotype. He calls himself 'real', but he calls himself Uncle Rick too, even though Dan is his brother-in-law. Dan calls him an 'annoying douchebag' even before we meet him and we, along with Mark and Hugh, soon realise why. He's as outrageous as you can imagine a stand up comic without a hint of restraint to be. It takes less than two minutes for him to insult them through an extended and graphic imagined description of their testicles and we promptly follow these three friends way out of their comfort zone. We understand how uncomfortable they are because we're just as uncomfortable watching him and he isn't even talking to us.

The story exists because they're too socially inept to deal with Uncle Rick. They aren't equipped with the skills needed to escape someone like him. Dan retreats into himself, resigned to his inability to make a difference. Hugh acquiesces to avoid conflict. Mark makes mild protests but buckles under the slightest pressure. At this point this film belongs utterly to Jeff Koen, just as the story belongs utterly to the character he portrays. I should be fair and mention that he's very good indeed at what he does, it's just that what he does is the last thing you'd want anyone to do anywhere near your vicinity. Finally I've found a male equivalent to Helena Bonham Carter's role in Fight Club, a female character who makes me cringe even thinking back to watching that movie, not because of how she was played but because she's the epitome of everything I don't want to see in a woman. Rick is the male equivalent and of course, that's entirely the point.
'Any idea what sort of journey you're going to have?' he asks the trio, as he kidnaps them in their own vehicle and sets out for Montreal to rip it up on their dime. They don't have a clue and neither do we, but we soon find out. Obviously the journey is what the film is about and it goes to some strange places indeed. It's roughly structured in three thirds: the first grounds in reality by providing the very down to earth trio of leads; the second launches Rick into the mix; and the third adds Gunther, Mark's old college roommate, who is at once the same and the opposite of Rick. He's just as inappropriate, but he's inappropriate in a very polite, sedate and inoffensive way. He's a riot, Keaton Farmer shining in the role like Johnny Depp as a tripping Jim Morrison. Gunther and Rick together are more than a riot. The funniest I found Koen was Rick's scene with Gunther which is a surreal but important one for all the characters.

Casting a professional comedian in a prominent role in a picture suggests that it's supposed to be a comedy. Certainly reviewers have generally compared it to The Hangover, which I haven't seen. Yet it doesn't work for me that way as while there's much humour, there are few jokes and Koen's act goes beyond what many might find funny. It was an effort not to stop watching when he showed up. I laughed more at each deadpan dose of insanity from Gunther than Koen's entire part. Yet it worked for me as a drama, his crudeness included. The journey this everyday trio of nobodies take isn't to Montreal, but into and outside themselves. They learn a little more both about who they are and about the world at large; because they are our surrogates, we get to experience some of that journey for ourselves too. This story delights in dragging us along with the lead trio into places none of us want to go but we leave smiling nonetheless.

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