'Song of Back and Neck': Film Review | Tribeca 2018
Paul Lieberstein of ‘The Office’ writes, directs and stars as a sad sack rom-com hero in this uneven debut.
What if Toby, the sad-sack HR guy from The Office, became the hero of a rom-com? How could anyone make such a low-key, deadpan character engaging enough? That’s a problem that the star, writer and director Paul Lieberstein never quite solves in Song of Back and Neck, his often funny and just as often pedestrian first feature.
Lieberstein not only played Toby, he was a writer, producer and for several seasons showrunner on NBC's The Office. In Song, he plays Fred Trolleycar, a paralegal in his father’s law firm, who shares the sitcom character’s passive demeanor. Lieberstein weaves together three strands of a story. There is absurdist comedy — really, his name is Trolleycar — that usually relies on Fred’s crippling, possibly psychologically caused back pain. (A director’s statement says the story was loosely inspired by Lieberstein’s own emotionally rooted back problems.) There’s a romance with a client of the firm (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is ready to divorce her husband. Layered over that is the fraught failed-son-and-successful-father dynamic. Only the comic parts soar, and they fit uneasily with the pallid romance and half-hearted family drama.
The film begins with a funny extended sequence that suggests we’re in for pure laughs. The alarm rings and Fred slithers out of bed, landing flat on his aching back. He showers, brushes his teeth, dresses and eats his cereal all while lying on the floor to avoid the pain of standing. As actor and director, Lieberstein handles these quirky scenes just right, without becoming twee. Overhead shots add brief visual flair to a film that generally looks bright but by-the-numbers bland.
At the office, Fred’s father (Robert Pine) is so dismissive he hasn’t bothered to tell his son he’s retiring. A younger attorney (Clark Duke) lords his authority over Fred. And he begins to fall for the client, Regan (DeWitt). It makes sense that her name echoes that of one of King Lear’s sinister daughters. Pay attention to the way she fills a coffee cup to the brim, too full to walk across the conference room, then gives a sly look as she calmly pours the excess onto the carpet; it’s valuable insight into her character, which DeWitt nicely underplays so that it lands as a clue. Regan is not instantly a villain.
Fred and Regan bond over their shared back pain. In the film’s most inspired subplot, he visits her acupuncturist, who literally makes his back sing. The needles vibrate with musical sounds, like a tuning fork, melodic enough to inspire the acupuncturist’s son to accompany Fred’s back on the cello. Before long, Fred is performing with other musicians, and a loony scene of him onstage with an accordionist and guitarist is a comic high point.
But the humor is constantly interrupted by the lackluster, obvious romance plot and the uninvolving neglectful-father thread, so that watching the movie is like being caught in stop-and-go traffic. We should feel more empathy for Fred when his father cruelly says he’s been bailing him out at work for years. We should sense more heat in his attraction to Regan, even if we see more clearly than he does that he’s just a convenience for her. But Lieberstein is much better at mining ludicrous humor than conveying a real character behind Fred’s meek facade. A richer performance might have helped, but the flaws are baked into the weaker, emotional parts of the script.
By the time Regan’s husband (Brian d’Arcy James) turns up and tries to win her back, almost everyone has forgotten he exists. But his arrival sets off more excruciating back pain for Fred, and a surreal finale. He escapes the ER and takes to the road in a hospital gown and wheelchair, stopping by Regan’s to plead with her to come along to Coachella. He’s not kidding; he’s heading there with his musician friends.
There are a few other funny moments that come from great casting in tiny roles. Paul Feig plays a blasé doctor. When Fred asks that common but pointless question, “What would you do if this were your back and neck?” he gets the answer he deserves: “Thank God it’s not,” says Feig’s Dr. Street.
Ike Barinholtz has a couple of brief scenes as a hospital nurse, a more lucid relative of Morgan, his character on The Mindy Project. Or so he seems until he starts tap dancing.
Lieberstein gets credit for stretching beyond those easy comic tropes and attempting to add emotional heft. But there’s no escaping the idea that a simpler comedy would have created a more consistently enjoyable film. Like many directors who start out with an overly ambitious, semi-autobiographical movie, he may well have a better film in his future now that this personal work is out of his system.
Production companies: Starstream Media, Exhibit, Boo Pictures
Cast: Paul Lieberstein, Rosemarie DeWitt, Robert Pine, Brian d’Arcy James, Clark Duke, Paul Feig, Ike Barinholtz
Director-screenwriter: Paul Lieberstein
Producers: Paul Lieberstein, Kim Leadford, Jennifer Prediger
Director of photography: Bartosz Nalazek
Production designer: Paul Jackson
Costume designer: Camille Benda
Editor: Gary Levy
Music: Antonio Andrade
Casting: Amey Ren′e
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)