'On the Count of Three': Film Review | Sundance 2021

On the Count of Three
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
An imperfect but serious-minded debut.

Comedian Jerrod Carmichael's directing debut follows two best friends (Carmichael and Christopher Abbott) who've decided to kill themselves at the end of the day.

In his stand-up sets, Jerrod Carmichael often takes a position he knows won't be popular with listeners and seems to dare them to doubt his sincerity. Low-key, matter-of-fact, he shows impressive comfort with the prospect of disapproval; maybe knowing you have more charisma than you need makes it easier to be unsympathetic.

He certainly doesn't work for our approval in On the Count of Three, his directing debut. The story of a suicide pact that hits some speed bumps, scripted by Ramy co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, it's hardly a black comedy — more an appropriately sour (last) day-in-the-life that affords a few bitter laughs along the way. The film doesn't cater to those who believe every suicide's a tragedy, and it also disdains romantic attitudes around the act (witness its mockery of Papa Roach's crappy kill-myself metal anthem "Last Resort"). It's not wholly satisfying as a dramatic work, which is probably a sign of its honest identification with its two troubled protagonists.

Carmichael plays Val, whose lifelong best friend Kevin (Christopher Abbott) tried to kill himself earlier in the week. Whether it's contagion or coincidence (or a breakup with his girlfriend Natasha), Val has just reached that point as well. A sequence at the feed store where he works shows how getting a promotion at a job you hate might be the last straw: The film's most memorable image pairs banality and despair in the feed-store toilet, accompanied by a Travis Tritt tune.

When Val suggests to Kevin that the two shoot each other at the same moment (the biggest of several iffy ideas these characters have), the latter is surprised. But Val assures him he's no newbie to the idea of ending things. "I think about it all the time and it brings me comfort," he says, in a brief conversation that's as true as the movie gets. But Kevin balks at trigger-time, saying he's caught off guard and wants to live one more day. They'll do it in the evening, he promises. First, they need to think of something worth doing with their final hours.

Unsurprisingly, both men have some emotional scores to settle, some of which might justify the kind of violence you'd be tempted to commit if you had no fear of going to prison. But the spur-of-the-moment nature of the day doesn't lend itself to good planning. The men have the kind of setbacks that might be played for laughs in a different kind of picture; here, they just further our sense of the characters — or at least Val, who doesn't have the excuse of a mental illness — as confused and rash. They want to kill someone who abused Kevin decades ago — a child therapist played, ickily, by Henry Winkler. But they've got hours to wait before that's possible.

One instance of pleasure reminds us where a more conventional story might have gone: The guys go back to the dirtbike track where they once worked; Carmichael mounts a camera on a bike and very briefly gets us lost in the thrill of splattered mud and speed. It's the kind of endorphin rush that might remind someone it can be fun to be alive. Then that too is soured, leading directly to a scene in which Kevin, angry but principled, "robs" a convenience store at gunpoint but pays for what he takes. "It's my right to bear this firearm, for some reason," the gun-control advocate grouses.

During the course of a day that has him confronting a father who wronged him (JB Smoove, excellent) and a woman he has wronged (Tiffany Haddish, wasted), Val gets news that causes him to reconsider his plans. But the plot has a Thelma & Louise momentum making cold feet irrelevant. The escalating action isn't so much implausible as disappointing, given that the day began with a simple but profound decision being made by two friends — and that debate alone might well have kept these men, and the movie, busy all day.

Both actors display an understanding of how their characters would react in extreme circumstances, but the script misses a beat or two in communicating the specifics of their sad lives to the viewer. Are these thwarted men better off dead? Once they've decided they are, is it too late to change their minds?

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Valparaiso Pictures, Werner Entertainment
Cast: Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, Lavell Crawford, Henry Winkler
Director: Jerrod Carmichael
Screenwriters: Ari Katcher, Ryan Welch
Producers: David Carrico, Adam Paulsen, Tom Werner, Jake Densen, Jerrod Carmichael, Ari Katcher, Jimmy Price
Director of photography: Marshall Adams
Production designer: Garren Dunbar
Costume designer: Jennifer Stroud
Editor: Tom Eagles
Composer: Owen Pallett
Casting directors: Marisol Roncali, Chelsea Bloch
Sales: Mikey Schwartz-Wright, UTA

84 minutes