'Joshy': Sundance Review
Friends and strangers skirt around their host's grief over a weekend in a rented country house.
For his sophomore feature after the singular Life After Beth, which premiered here two years ago, Jeff Baena again tweaks a familiar genre: In Beth, he completely upended the zom-com; in Joshy, he makes more modest changes to the Soul-Baring Weekend Reunion pic. As reliably (though less outrageously) funny as the first film but far more easily marketed, the picture will have to fight moviegoers' familiarity with this mini-genre, which seems to appear once or thrice in every fest lineup. A cast of comic talent ranging from the mainstream to the under-the-radar should help on that front.
As in Beth, the picture starts with a dead girlfriend. Four months ago, Josh (Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch) came back from the gym to a fiancee who had killed herself. Now, he and some friends decide to meet at the cabin in Ojai, Calif., where they'd intended to have his bachelor party. It'll be a weekend of "cleansing the palate," thinks Josh's old neighbor Eric (Nick Kroll) — who, despite being less close to Josh than Ari and Adam (Adam Pally and Listen Up Philip director Alex Ross Perry), attempts to make himself the weekend's social director of hedonism, starting by simply scouting local bars and working his way up (or down) to calling in sex workers.
Out for drinks at The Lone Angus, the group takes on some outsiders. Greg (Brett Gelman) is intense and unwilling to accept that Josh isn't having a great time (until he understands why); Jodi (Jenny Slate) enters the picture more subtly. She supplies the film's only really compelling subplot, as Ari, who has a wife and child, finds himself half-innocently stumbling into an instantly intimate friendship that threatens to become physical. (Other little threads, like Adam's urgent desire to teach the crew how to play a complicated "co-op game," generate chuckles but little involvement.) These two become the characters we'd most like to get to know better, but as with some other subjects it raises, the movie stops short of really exploring them.
As the reunion gets increasingly booze- and drug-addled, the film sometimes shifts locations abruptly enough to suggest it has been whittled down substantially. The handling of bit parts can give the same impression: Lauren Graham, Jake Johnson, and Aubrey Plaza (the namesake star of Life After Beth) don't get enough to do here to justify bringing them in.
Naturally, the grief being avoided by these old and new friends eventually bubbles up. Though it's provoked by a pretty implausible confrontation, the scene ultimately elicits the kind of catharsis these films almost always traffic in. That mood is helped along by a fine Devendra Banhart score, less so by Patrice Cochet's hazy cinematography. The weekend finally achieves the vibe it could have had from the start, just in time to pack the cars and head back home.
Production companies: Destro Films, American Zoetrope, Bow and Arrow Entertainment
Cast: Thomas Middleditch, Adam Pally, Alex Ross Perry, Nick Kroll, Brett Gelman, Jenny Slate, Paul Reiser, Lisa Edelstein, Aubrey Plaza, Lauren Weedman, Alison Brie
Director-screenwriter: Jeff Baena
Producers: Liz Destro, Michael Zakin
Executive producers: Charles Bonan, Kim Leadford, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman
Director of photography: Patrice Cochet
Production designer: Almitra Corey
Costume designer: Mollie Gates
Editor: Ryan Brown
Composer: Devendra Banhart
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (US Dramatic competition)