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The rare contemporary American comedy that’s as much about the form as the function, Michael Angelo Covino’s The Climb follows two bickering lifelong buddies working out their issues through a series of ambitiously helmed vignettes, each one set in a different time and place, and fueled by a varying degree of bromantic angst.
While some of the set pieces work a bit better than others, the film manages to cleverly channel its message from start to finish, reminding us how much we try to change, evolve or become somebody else, yet woefully remain the same. A premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar should give this well-realized feature debut, which Covino and co-star/co-writer Kyle Marvin adapted from their 2018 short, a boost both in the U.S. and internationally.
Like its memorable opening scene, set during a bike ride in the South of France and captured in an impressive single take, life for the characters in The Climb is a long, uphill battle where you tend to wind up right back where you started.
When we first meet them — panting, sweating and trying to keep pace — the athletic go-getter Michael (Covino) and the wheezing milquetoast Kyle (Marvin) are on a two-man cycling excursion in the Midi before the latter gets hitched to his French girlfriend, Ava (Judith Godreche). But just when they’ve made it over a particularly challenging slope, Michael informs Kyle that he and Ava have been sleeping together.
That bombshell, which is followed by a string of others throughout the half-dozen sequences that make up the storyline, will initially drive the dudes, who have known each other since they were children, apart. But the next sequence, where we learn Ava has suddenly died and left Michael a distraught widower, will bring them back together again, if only temporarily, before they meet once again in the next sequence — and so on and so forth until the bittersweet end.
The script intelligently dishes out key information in each vignette, with the scenes separated by major narrative ellipses that force the viewer to work a little in order to figure things out. As time moves on, Michael and Kyle wind up switching places, with the former putting on weight and turning into a major alcoholic and the latter finally getting his life together by marrying his high school friend Marissa (Gayle Rankin, of GLOW).
But that stasis will also be temporary. Life again takes over, and both men revert to what they’ve always been — a reality that only brings them closer together, though it pushes the chance of their having viable relationships with the opposite sex far away. Like any true bromance, The Climb ultimately shows how bros come first, although in this case that seems to be less a matter of choice and more a result of Michael’s and Kyle’s accumulated personal failures.
What also sets The Climb apart from many new U.S. comedies is Covino’s attempt to make something, especially in our TV-obsessed times, that feels like an actual movie. Working with talented DP Zach Kuperstein (The Eyes of My Mother), the director poses each scene as a specific cinematic challenge, using sequence shots, extended takes, shifts in focus and plenty of Steadicam to keep the action as fluid as possible, allowing the actors to work though their dialogue without interruption.
During an inspired scene set during Thanksgiving dinner and another during a fateful Christmas party, the camera continuously roves inside and outside the suburban home of Kyle’s parents (Talia Balsam, George Wendt), tracking their son’s anxiety-ridden foibles and Michael’s drunken antics as the family sadly looks on. The style is ambitious yet doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling, with the two knuckleheads remaining at the center while the rest of the world swirls around them.
The jokes in The Climb are not as much laugh-out-loud funny as they are observantly deadpan, although the filmmakers try a few broader stabs at humor, some of which land well while others feel heavy-handed. Not every scene is perfect, but overall the movie finds its momentum (or its cadence, to use a term employed by the cycling-obsessed Michael) over time — with time itself a major part of the scenario as we watch the friends grow older, grow apart and inevitably regress.
The theme of time passing, and a style marked by constant camera movement, feel, oddly enough, like homages to French philosopher and movie enthusiast Gilles Deleuze’s classic studies The Image-Movement and The Image-Time. Perhaps that’s not entirely a coincidence: Covino cites cineastes like Claude Sautet, Bertrand Tavernier and the lesser-known Pierre Étaix in the press notes (a clip from Étaix’s Le Grand Amour appears in one sequence), which puts The Climb in a different category than your average joke-laden indie affair. It all makes for a unique case, especially nowadays, of someone mixing comedy with cinema to nail the punchline.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Topic Studios, Watch This Ready
Cast: Kyle Marvin, Michael Angelo Covino, Gayle Rankin, Talia Balsam, George Wendt, Judith Godreche
Director: Michael Angelo Covino
Screenwriters: Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin
Producers: Noah Lang, Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin
Executive producers: Michael Bloom, Ryan Heller, Adam Pincus, Gilda Moratti
Director of photography: Zach Kuperstein
Costume designer: Callam Stokes
Editor: Sara Shaw
Composers: Jon Natchez, Martin Mabz
Casting directors: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy
Sales: Endeavor (U.S.)/Memento (International)
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