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Mo McRae's feature-length directorial debut is a halfway-satirical hostage narrative gone berserk. "A Lot of Nothing" tackles topics close to the chest for Black Americans, taking on the ever-relevant topic of police killings of unarmed victims. James (Y'lan Noel) and Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) are a wealthy Black couple, who upon learning that their white neighbor, a cop, killed a kid, perform their own twisted citizen's arrest. When James' brother, Jamal (Shamier Anderson), and his pregnant wife, Candy (Lex Scott Davis), arrive for dinner, they end up getting pulled into the scheme, becoming active participants in the hostage situation.
McRae's film is nothing if not audacious. To make a debut with such sensitivity at its center certainly requires a confident hand, and the film's stylistic aspects complement this to a tee, even when the film's content does not. Creative cinematography and a thumping jazzy score accentuate the no-holds-barred approach of the film and its characters. McRae's direction is bold, with the more actiony sequences lending themselves to comedy, reminiscent of the soapy early aughts detectives on television.
Microaggressions in the workplace, code-switching, colorism, and intracommunity respectability politics play out in one-liners and thrown-away sequences. James and Vanessa are clear foils to Jamal and Candy in class, profession, and even down to the "whiteness" of their names. These differences cause rifts between the characters, but the film's poor writing fails to support any of the depth involved in these subjects. It also neglects to realize any of the characters as actual people.
"A Lot of Nothing" presents a script simmering with buzzwords but ultimately no thesis. The characters are written as transitory soundboards to uplift the film's proposed intelligence but fall short in actually providing them with any motivations or layers. Instead, they're archetypes, and simple ones at that. The lead performances are feeble, but Anderson's quips nail comic relief and Davis' emotional moments bear true effect. However, the script is too focused on Noel and Coleman, who have little chemistry. Coleman's overacting is an accessory to the film's satirical nature for many moments but eventually tires out as the runtime trucks along.
As the characters make their way through a hellish night of hostage-taking, Black emotional fatigue, and their interpersonal beef, the tone remains the same. The spectrum of energy is stuck on high, and it belies the film's intention to draw attention to anything serious. While it's typical for satire to push elements to 11, "A Lot of Nothing" doesn't fully commit to the bit. Especially as the film plunges head first into its twisty third act, it loses its grasp on creative control and shreds any loyalty to its themes.
"A Lot of Nothing" takes a fraction of a stance on how Black people are socially caricatured and systemically discriminated against. So when the film reaches its big reveal and the discussion of it, it spins any assumption of intention into obscurity. The thematic integrity dissolves, completely muddling its stance on the intersection of race and social capital. During this, the film boasts a shallow gotcha-cleverness in tone while the characters plummet emotionally.
McRae's film feels patronizing and quick-tongued in its writing, though maybe not intentionally. Perhaps an earnest, though misguided switch (that bewilders the film entirely) was an attempt at thoughtful devil's advocacy disguised as All Lives Matter condescension. While none of these themes are explored with meaningful depth, they are at least presented with acknowledgment.
"A Lot of Nothing" proves that McRae shows true promise in his direction and artistic capabilities. His confidence in visual creativity as well as a present, though half-baked, ability to juggle complex themes among quippy banter must be remarked on. But "A Lot of Nothing" leaves much to be desired, falling victim to a shoddy script that winds up a proclamation of confusion.
Now playing in theaters and available on VOD.
Y'lan Noel as James
Cleopatra Coleman as Vanessa
Lex Scott Davis as Candy
Shamier Anderson as Jamal
Justin Hartley as Brian
Sheila Carrasco as Olivia
Andrew Leeds as Ted
Nanrisa Lee as Linda