FOLK HERO & FUNNY GUY * * *
Starring Alex Karpovsky, Wyatt Russell, Meredith Hagner, Hannah Simone and Melanie Lynskey. Written and directed by Jeff Grace.
An exhausted standby of comment section trolls is to claim that we critics “expect every movie to be Citizen Kane.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten that one, but I can be fairly certain that most folks who lob it around have probably never even seen Citizen Kane, which is their loss because it’s pretty awesome. Yet as amazing as Welles’ 1941 debut may be, no critic in their right mind really expects *any* movie to be Citizen Kane, let alone *every* movie. (That would be bloody exhausting.) A lot of the time we just want to be entertained, that’s all.
I saw Jeff Grace’s Folk Hero & Funny Guy last year at the Independent Film Festival Boston. You might not have heard much about it then because this isn’t the kind of movie that scorches through the fest circuit kicking up controversy and hyperbolic tweets. But it is the kind of amiable, character-driven comedy we don’t see nearly enough of these days. Twenty years ago Folk Hero & Funny Guy probably would have underperformed in theatres before finding an appreciative audience on VHS and cable alongside stuff like Swingers and Beautiful Girls. Grace’s debut feature has a similarly relaxed, guysie hangout vibe that feels soothing on a hungover Sunday afternoon. I really enjoyed revisiting it last week.
A genial, rambling road movie about two childhood friends running out of things they have in common, the film stars Alex Karpovsky as Paul, an aspiring standup comedian stuck in a rut. His fiancée just left him for some jerk who dares wear a Yankees hat in Boston – and adding insult to injury, the guy doesn’t even like the team, he just likes the hat. We see Paul floundering at open mic nights, constantly rehashing stale, early-aughts material about Evites and Friendster when his old pal Jason rolls into town and tries to cheer him up.
The hunky frontman for a Zac Brown-ish sorta country-rock superstar band, Jason is played by Wyatt Russell with gregarious charm and more than a hint of blissful obliviousness. He’s just booked a few solo acoustic gigs at some out-of-the-way joints and figures why not have Paul open for him and make a road trip out of it in the old Volvo? Maybe this will help the big fella get his groove back.
Karpovsky and Russell are an inspired pairing, the former bringing the prickly, unexpectedly gallant nebbishness he honed for six seasons as Ray Ploshansky on HBO’s Girls, while the latter has a sunny, easygoing charm that’s pretty much exactly the kind of genetic blessing you’d expect from Kurt and Goldie’s kid. They work well off each other, with Karpovsky’s nervous nattering bumping up against Russell’s laid-back cool, and the actors do honestly appear to enjoy one another quite a bit. You might wonder how these opposites became friends in the first place, but there’s never any question that they are.
Well, at least they are until Bryn shows up. Played by Meredith Hagner, she’s an attractive and talented singer-songwriter who Jason accidentally invited to come along on the tour during a drunken hookup he can’t really remember. Paul’s kinda sweet on Bryn but wouldn’t dare ever say so, and the movie mines the increasing awkwardness of their three’s-a-crowd situation for plenty of uncomfortable laughs. Grace gets the underlying male fragility dead-to-rights, each of these friends not-so-secretly jealous of one another and playing their longstanding rivalry out over a woman who truth be told, isn’t really all that interested in either of them.
It’s a movie better at the small insights than big gags. The one attempt at a lewd, Farrelly-styled set-piece involving a groupie with a selfie stick falls dreadfully flat, and worse, feels out of character for a film that otherwise doesn’t allow its female characters to be presented as goals these guys must attain on their way to adulthood. There’s a wonderful scene with the matchless Melanie Lynskey puncturing Jason’s all-encompassing sense of entitlement, and it’s a kick when Hagner’s Bryn finally gets to call out these characters on assumptions that would probably have gone unquestioned in the big-budget studio version of this story.
Again, Folk Hero & Funny Guy isn’t the kind of movie that rocks your world, but it’s a solid debut made with warmth and a cozy charm. It’s good company, even if it’s no Citizen Kane.