Romantic comedies are such an endangered commodity on the big screen that when a not completely terrible one comes along, you’re tempted to give it a pass. But while viewers may feel generous for at least the first few minutes of Jason Winer’s effort starring Martin Freeman and Morena Baccarin, their good will is likely to curdle. Ode to Joy fails to live up to its title by attempting to wring comic mileage from a medical condition that sufferers probably don’t find very funny.
The screenplay by Max Werner (a longtime writer for The Colbert Report) revolves around Charlie (Freeman), who wallows in sadness as a medical necessity. He suffers from cataplexy, a form of narcolepsy, which causes him to lose control of his muscles and pass out when he experiences strong emotions. In reality, the response is triggered by any extreme emotion, such as terror, but the film essentially boils it to down to joy.
Thus, Charlie, who works in a library because it provides the sort of soothing environment he needs, tries to avoid any situation where he might feel something approaching happiness. In the opening scene, he passes out at his sister’s wedding, despite his and his protective younger brother Cooper’s (Jake Lacy) best efforts to shield him from the event’s positive aspects.
In familiar romantic comedy tradition, Charlie gets involved in a “meet cute” scenario when the beautiful Francesca (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) becomes loud and aggressive as her boyfriend breaks up with her in the library. Charlie uses his well-honed comic instincts to defuse the situation, in the process so thoroughly charming Francesca that she all but invites him to ask her out. Charlie initially doesn’t take the bait, knowing that his intense attraction to her will only make his symptoms flare up, but at the urging of his colleagues he finally musters the courage.
That’s but the first of many situations in the pic, based on a true story featured on This American Life, that don’t ring true. It’s a stretch to imagine, for example, that Charlie would take Francesca to a highly depressing off-off-off-Broadway one-man play in a rundown theater on their first date, just so he can stay in a foul mood.
Charlie’s plan backfires when Francesca invites him into her apartment anyway and he promptly swoons and cracks his head. Cue the next ridiculous plot twist, when he decides to not see her anymore and manipulates her into going out with his initially hesitant but soon very willing brother. Charlie instead winds up dating the wildly eccentric Bethany (Melissa Rauch of The Big Bang Theory, stealing the film right from under the two leads), with whom he feels safe because he’s not attracted to her at all.
If you’re still willing to go with the movie’s very unconvincing flow at this point, you might even accept the utter weirdness of the two couples deciding to spend the weekend together at an upstate B&B, where Charlie reacts with increasing jealousy to Cooper and Francesca’s burgeoning relationship. Hilarity does not ensue, especially from such strained plot elements as Cooper’s intense sexual frustration over Francesca’s reluctance to sleep with him.
By the time Charlie has a romantic epiphany, but not before almost getting killed in an accident stemming from his unfortunate condition, and frantically races across town to declare his love for Francesca, you’ll be pining for the relative credibility of 50 First Dates.
Director Winer’s sole previous feature is the misbegotten 2011 Arthur remake starring Russell Brand, but he has extensive television credits, including many episodes of Single Parents, Life in Pieces and Modern Family, among others. That may account for this film’s broad sitcom-style sensibility, which saps the proceedings of any charm despite the talents of its estimable cast. Freeman, whose expertise at playing dourness is well illustrated in the Sherlock series, admirably tries to ground the situations in reality, but his efforts prove fruitless. And while Baccarin and Lacy have charm to spare, they are unable to make their schematic characters convincing. Jane Curtin has some nice moments as Francesca’s cancer-afflicted aunt, but she seems to be in another movie entirely.
Production company: Mosaic
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Melissa Rauch, Jake Lacy, Jane Curtin, Shannon Woodward, Adam Shapiro
Director: Jason Winer
Screenwriter: Max Werner
Producers: Mike Falbo, Ira Glass, Michael Lasker, Jimmy Miller, Alissa Shipp, Pamela Thur, Jason Winer
Executive producers: Nick Moceri, Max Werner, Joseph White
Director of photography: David Robert Jones
Production designer: Lisa Myers
Editor: Peter Teschner
Composer: Jeremy Turner
Costume designer: Carissa Kelly
Casting: S.J. Allocco, Jennifer Euston
Rated R, 97 minutes