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David Cross is best known for his beloved HBO sketch comedy series, Mr. Show, and for his role on the equally adored Arrested Development, an idiosyncratic sitcom so inspired in its original incarnation that even last year’s disappointingly patchy Netflix resurrection didn’t dampen fans’ ardor. Some of that goodwill might rub off on Cross’ first feature as writer-director, Hits: a frequently funny but easy-prey satire about America’s obsession with fame, displaying a small-screen sensibility that extends from its joke setups to its boxy visuals. Given that much of the conflict is built around the uproar at a small-town council meeting, it almost seems like a Parks and Recreation knockoff.
None of which is to say that the movie doesn’t deliver laughs. An ensemble cast peppered with stand-up comics and names like Amy Sedaris, Michael Cera and Jason Ritter in quirky roles (Julia Stiles also swings by for a droll cameo) will likely help it find a life as a VOD entry, particularly if given a catchier title.
Dave Stuben (Matt Walsh) is a middle-aged municipal employee in the depressed, working-class town of Liberty, N.Y., a less-than-subtle misnomer given how often Dave feels he’s being denied his civil rights. The thorn in the side of officious councilwoman Christina Caserta (Amy Carlson), he bombards her office with phone calls, emails and faxes outlining his grievances — unplowed roads, speeding drivers, potholes — and regularly goes beyond his three minutes of allocated citizen complaint time at council meetings.
Dave’s daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner) is a less dangerous version of Robert De Niro’s character in The King of Comedy. Desperate for fame and delusional about her singing abilities, the untalented girl dreams of being a breakthrough star on The Voice, incessantly rehearsing for imaginary guest spots on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
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When Dave’s angry council meeting rants turn up on YouTube, a Brooklyn weed dealer (Cera), finding them a hoot, shows them to his client Donovan (James Adomian). But neo-hippie do-gooder Donovan sees the injustice being perpetrated against martyred Dave, identifying him as a cause for his sparsely attended radical advocacy group, Think Tank. Quoting Dave’s cry of indignation — “The town of Liberty has become Berlin under Hitler” — Donovan makes a hilariously grandiose YouTube mashup of his council tirades and James Stewart’s impassioned speeches from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Titled “Dave Stuber vs. Tyranny,” the video goes viral, causing a mob of liberal cause junkies and news reporters to descend on Liberty, stealing the thunder of Donovan and his crew.
Katelyn, meanwhile, has slapped down Dave’s money and compromised herself with a sleazebag stoner (Ritter) for a “professional-quality” demo recording. Somewhat concerned that her dad is not equipped to handle all the sudden attention, she’s also peeved that none of it is spilling over onto her.
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Familiar as much of this is, Cross’ material scores often enough for the film to entertain, and the cast has the timing and delivery to ensure that the humor lands, however softly. Walsh and Hagner even manage to sneak in the odd moment of poignancy. The trouble is that almost every target concerning bottom-feeding insta-celebrity culture could be (and has been) skewered just as effectively in a half-hour comedy format, stand-up routine or sketch. In the initial scenes, Cross shows some skill at weaving together the disparate characters via random connections. But the fine line between needling affection and condescension toward both local losers and meddling liberals gets blurred.
That’s especially the case in the climactic scene during which television cameras, activists and citizens converge on the town hall meeting to see newly made folk hero Dave take on the establishment. It’s no surprise that both Katelyn and the nerdy white rapper (Jake Cherry) who pines for her also turn up, seizing the opportunity to cleanse themselves of public humiliation.
While this circus is too chaotically handled to provide a satisfying payoff, the real problem is the decision to have beleaguered Dave reveal his true colors. Just a handful of lines spewed out at the height of his rage are enough to completely warp the comedy, leaving a sour stain all over the movie.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Meredith Hagner, Matt Walsh, James Adomian, Jake Cherry, Derek Waters, Wyatt Cenac, Amy Sedaris, David Koechner, Jason Ritter, Amy Carlson, Jessie Ennis, Erinn Hayes, Michael Cera, Kurt Braunohler, Julia Stiles
Production companies: Honora
Director-screenwriter: David Cross
Producers: Charles James Denton, Giles Andrew, Jessica Latham
Executive producers: Ben Altarescu, Brian Gross, Abe Schwartz
Director of photography: Paul Koestner
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Music: Zoe Keating
Costume designer: Keri Lee Doris
Editor: Patrick B. Coleman
Sales: Cinetic Media
No rating, 100 minutes.
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