Review: Joshy

Posted on Saturday, December 31st, 2016 at 11:18 am

[Originally written for and published by Crossfader Magazine]

Director: Jeff Baena

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Year: 2016

Mumblecore’s all grown up (and appropriated by Judd Apatow). The world began expecting more out of the independent subgenre once the Duplass Brothers took over HBO, and Joe & Kris Swanberg hypnotized the world with their star child in films like HAPPY CHRISTMAS and DIGGING FOR FIRE. Moody character pieces driven by improvised dialogue and minimalist camera work became the norm, no longer impressive or interesting just for the anormality. It takes the kind of care, thought, and effort that writer-director Jeff Baena brings to the table for JOSHY to have the style and ethos stand out again for how it can be heavily effective cinematically. With the help of some mumblecore titans and some of the best improv comedians working today, JOSHY manages to recall what made the genre it rests within so fascinating in the first place.

joshy boy band

The most depressing boy band since LFO

JOSHY’s emotional plot hinges on a gasp-worthy dramatic event less than five minutes into the film’s runtime. It’s a very frank and disturbing moment that Baena boldly rests on just before things get too intense. The setup leads to the plans of a now defunct bachelor party vacation for our titular character. His gaggle of friends, seemingly only connected through their friendship with Josh as opposed to with each other, have decided to throw a spiritual bachelor party anyway, for the sake of cheering up their friend, going through what could be considered, in an understatement of the century, a rough time. Plans of debauchery and roughhousing ensue, but the cloud of emotional drama, in groups and individually, constantly hovers over the group, leading to some unexpectedly intense downpour.

joshy depictions

Depictions for steps 1-3 of the Kübler-Ross grief process

It should be noted that JOSHY is a film that was entirely improvised, based on a script outline without any written dialogue. This is par for the course with Mumblecore, though even the greats have started writing and planning a little more. Baena tackles that unexpected freshness that comes with the process here, save for some flashy filmmaking moments that harken back to 70s style ensemble dramas. The film looks very pretty, and similar to the Duplass Brothers’ TOGETHERNESS, or a personal favorite, Lynn Shelton’s YOUR SISTER’S SISTER, Baena creates tableaus that capture setting and character with elegant simplicity. It’s smart but understated filmmaking, rightfully so. Great energy and attention to detail is put into montages, highlighting character moments throughout as opposed to simply making up for pace. In documentary-like fashion, Baena’s biggest job here is capturing and contextualizing unexpected action and emotion; he succeeds.

joshy bret gelman

Mise-en-scène tips: Cast Brett Gelman in everything

Perhaps its strongest asset, JOSHY’s cast is stacked to the nines with talent. The group is comprised of improv comedy greats with proven dramatic track records: Nick Kroll, Brett Gelman, Jenny Slate, Adam Pally, and in the center of it all is SILICON VALLEY’s Thomas Middleditch. These voices bring an unbridled chemistry to the screen that any movie, independent or not, would kill for; they’re natural and awkward in expert fashions. Plus, they bring humor in all forms, organic and intense, used as a social weapon or medicine. Even more impressive is their ability to get real. This is a film about masks we put on, almost obviously so, with a lot of pain behind them. Confrontations get more and more intense as the film goes on, with people crumbling or building up more walls around themselves. Thomas Middleditch is the MVP here, as JOSHY might as well be a showcase for his capabilities comically and dramatically; he bares all and proves to be one of the brightest, most capable young talents working today.

joshy the wolf

Still sad about how he was treated in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Rounding out the pack are Alex Ross Perry and Joe and Kris Swanberg, a trio of mumblecore behemoths with a proven track record in performing improvised comedy, as well as drama. Being directors, all three of them, they manage to bring an almost course-correcting element, performing as dramatic staples for the whole piece. Alex Ross Perry especially functions in this fashion, considering he’s part of the main ensemble, and not only holds his own as a dramatic presence, but as a comedic one as well. The best part of anything improvised is generated and constantly blossoming conflict; when done well, it feels like magic out of thin air, or even better, like real life. Baena’s recruiting here pays off in spades with some truly devastating dramatic beats tent-poling up a wholly on-edge, lively narrative.

Like its genre contemporaries, JOSHY isn’t a full-on comedy. It’s funny, certainly, but even more shrouded in melancholy than it is jokes. As a drama, the film hits its moments with flying colors. Again, this is especially thanks to the performers, willing to be emotionally naked and explore some dark places together. As far as their road map to get there comes, JOSHY gets a little too on the rails near its end, calling attention to its own skeletal structure. It’s a touching effort, utilizing planting and payoff with a recurring element throughout the film (in a complicated tabletop roleplaying game that some characters want to play and that others don’t; just like life, baby), but the resolution is a little too worried about making sure things wrap up neatly, despite the context being incredibly messy in a human fashion. It compromises a lot of the spontaneous, awkward, human energy that bubbles up throughout. Yet as notable as it is, the performers carry their weight through to the end, letting the film finish gracefully with a sense of dramatic thoroughness.

joshy hot tub

Just like real life, all my deepest anxieties come out in the hot tub

JOSHY is a mild-mannered surprise, coming from a class that has been relegated to Sundance pickups and forgotten indie fodder. It reminds audiences of Jeff Baena’s existence and talent, worthy of recalling for his co-writing credit on I HEART HUCKABEES, his weirdo zombie romantic comedy LIFE AFTER BETH, and now the tender and deceptively simple JOSHY. Hopefully when given even bigger opportunities, he can provide even deeper and stranger human stories, though JOSHY will be even more remembered for its cast, and utilization of such. The performers here, having grown up in and around movies like its own, come to play ball and knock it out of the park. They’re all destined for even more great work in future projects, and can all use this as a fairly strong calling card of sorts. I wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas Middleditch is pushed even more into the limelight after this one, just like Jonah Hill in CYRUS before he got MONEYBALL. To see some grand talent, bursting at the seams to show something genuine and from the heart, seek out JOSHY. Like the best mumblecore films, it reminds its audience that in even the darkest times, they’re not alone.

Verdict: Recommend

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