'The Argument': Film Review

The Argument
Gravitas Ventures
Not quite nasty enough.

A group of friends attempts a novel kind of couples therapy in Robert Schwartzman's comedy.

A couple goes to insane lengths in an attempt to decide which one of them is right in Robert Schwartzman's The Argument: Disagreeing over whether a party-ending remark was insulting or misinterpreted, the two decide to simply host the exact gathering again, replaying the night over and over until they can reach an agreement. While scribe Zac Stanford's premise invites a Charlie Kaufman-like, reality-bending take, Schwartzman plays things straight enough that one has a hard time believing the action. But viewers who get through a credulity-testing second act may laugh enough in the third to be glad they did.

Floundering screenwriter Jack (Dan Fogler), celebrating the stage debut of his equally unsuccessful actress girlfriend Lisa (Emma Bell), has invited his agent Brett (Danny Pudi) over to toast her on the play's closing night. Secretly, he intends to use the occasion to propose to her — an ambition he retains even after a surprise guest blocks him: Lisa's costar Paul (Tyler James Williams), who played her lover and feels entitled to flirt and grab offstage as well.

Both guests have ill-at-ease plus-ones: Brett's wife Sarah (Maggie Q), a rude lawyer who exaggerates her boredom instead of hiding it, and Paul's new Aussie girlfriend Trina (Cleopatra Coleman), a very dim bulb who can't hold her liquor. It's one of the lamest cocktail parties ever, in other words, and you might think all involved would be happy for an excuse to go home and forget it. Instead, Lisa and Jack dwell on the night's missteps afterward, with a broadly acted argument over whether she dissed him with a remark about his supposed "genius."

Any relationship that could be seriously threatened by a slight this mild probably isn't worth trying to save — and the effort certainly wouldn't justify involving innocent bystanders. But Jack messages the four attendees, inviting them to come back the next night and reenact every moment that led to the hurtful remark. They're not prepared for how serious he is about this not-so-instant replay: Jack deliberately repeats his bad-host mistakes, laughs hard at jokes that are no longer surprising, and expects guests to need the bathroom at the same point in the evening. Sarah has a photographic memory, and never stops resenting being asked to recall exactly what was said and when.

The project, unsurprisingly, fails. So Jack and Lisa somehow get their annoyed friends to do it again the next night. And again, and again, in a sequence that can't be accepted at face value but offers no other pathway to acceptance. When Sarah finally flips out and abandons the effort, the relieved and amused viewer might briefly forgive her hatefulness.

For Jack, though, this is only a cue to take things to another level. The cast of characters doubles, in a way that finally embraces the film's potential for meta-kookiness, and there are suddenly laughs to distract us from the believability problem. Over the course of just one night, an escalating series of objections and reversals eventually hits a rollicking pace, allowing some characters to pop into focus and others to function as simple objects of mockery.

Only as things move toward a conciliatory end does it become clear that this Argument could have stood being much nastier. If Stanford's dialogue had sharper teeth and Schwartzman had encouraged cast members like Fogler (so eager to be liked, in Fantastic Beasts and elsewhere) to commit to their characters' grievances, the first half could've been much less wishy-washy and the second half more of a relief. Then the only challenge would be to make viewers care whether Lisa and Jack reconcile, or end things in a fiery ritual that burns their friends as well.

Production company: The Ranch
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Dan Fogler, Emma Bell, Danny Pudi, Maggie Q, Tyler James Williams, Cleopatra Coleman
Director: Robert Schwartzman
Screenwriter: Zac Stanford
Producers: Robert Schwartzman, Russell Wayne Groves, Geeta Bajaj, Johan Disend, Bret Disend
Director of photography: Michael Rizzi
Production designer: Nicholas Faiella
Costume designer: Allison Calhoun
Editor: Max Goldblatt
Casting director: Lindsey Weissmueller

84 minutes