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Sundance 2018: “Hearts Beat Loud,” “The Long Dumb Road”

Sundance often premieres crowd-pleasing comedies at the end of the festival, launching films like “They Came Together” and “The Incredible Jessica James” in those closing days in years past. Leave ‘em laughing and they’ll probably remember you fondly enough to buy tickets again next year. And so it wasn’t particularly surprising to see a pair of laughers scheduled this year, both starring fantastic comedians known mostly for their work on television. Sadly, only one of them qualifies as a crowd-pleaser, but it’s so damn pleasing that it almost makes up for the failure of its partner.

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The far superior film is Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud,” a truly sweet, funny, and downright likable comedy from the director of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “The Hero.” To me, this is Haley’s best film, his most character-driven, gentle, and ultimately moving. It’s about how often we can find entirely unexpected things at the crossroads of life, and how, as a character says, we turn life’s conundrums into art. The art in this case being some pretty kick-ass, well-written pop music. It’s also a film that couldn’t be more likably cast. If you enjoy Nick Offerman, Toni Collette, Kiersey Clemons, and Ted Danson, this is just a chance to hang out with them again—and even see Danson behind the bar again. And if you don’t enjoy those actors, the colors of our skies are simply different.

Offerman, getting a lead role that Haley wrote for the multi-talented star, does his best film work to date as Frank Fisher, the owner of Red Hook Records. His daughter, Sam (Clemons of “Dope”) is about to go off to college, on a pre-med track, but dad just wants to jam a few times before she leaves. They’re both musicians in their free time, and they almost stumble upon a truly excellent pop song (which gives the film its title track) while they’re experimenting musically one night. Frank knows it’s something special and wants to capitalize on it, putting it on Spotify and coming with a gameplan that I believe includes a world tour. When Frank asks his daughter for a name, she responds “We are not a band.” So, of course, “Hearts Beat Loud” becomes a hit by We Are Not a Band.

As excited as Frank is about these developments, Sam has some other things on her mind. Not only is she preparing to go to the other coast for college but she’s leaving her girlfriend Rose (Sasha Lane) behind when she does. It’s remarkably refreshing to see a young, multi-racial, lesbian character in a comedy and her race and sexuality are never major plot points. This is just who she is, and her dad appears to at least support her identity now, and feels like maybe he always did. They clearly love each other, a dynamic amplified by the fact that Sam’s mother died in a bike accident years ago. They are not just a family but friends, although Sam is about to leave, and Frank worries that she’s leaving an opportunity at true musical expression behind her. Toni Collette plays Frank’s landlord, who also becomes something of a love interest, Blythe Danner is his mother, and Ted Danson is best friend and bartender. Yes, Sam Malone is pouring drinks again. Fans of FX’s “Fargo” will relish the opportunity to see Offerman and Danson together again too.

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There are a number of those “moments to relish” in “Hearts Beat Loud,” a film that defines likable. It also captures the joy of seeing someone you care about express themselves artistically in ways we haven’t seen that often in film. Art is often viewed as a solitary exercise by Hollywood, but “Hearts Beat Loud” not only portrays the joy of expression but how much great emotional weight one can find when we see people we care about express themselves so beautifully. One of my best friends is in a great band called Canasta, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen them live without feeling that unique wave of emotions that feels like a blend of pride, awe, and respect for the beauty of expression. And the way Frank looks at his daughter when she sings a heartfelt verse or the smile on a certain character’s face during the climax of the film gets to the heart of that feeling better than anything I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not a perfect movie (Danner’s part feels underwritten) but this is a comedy about emotional support and artistic joy—and we could use a few more of those.

As much as I love Nick Offerman, and am so happy for how much he delivers in Haley’s film, I adore Jason Mantzoukas, the talented star of “The League,” “The Good Place,” and possibly my favorite podcast, “How Did This Get Made?” I was SO pumped for a star vehicle for this should-be-a-household name, and “The Long Dumb Road” fulfills on that excitement…for about fifteen minutes. And then, and I’m sorry for the pun but it’s just too appropriate, it runs out of gas.

“The Long Dumb Road” is essentially an “Odd Couple road movie.“ We’re first introduced to Nat (Tony Revolori), a photographer driving from his family home in Texas to art college in California. Not long after he leaves, his car breaks down. Walking to the nearest shop, he runs into Richard (Mantzoukas), just as the loud-mouthed mechanic is quitting with two middle fingers in the air. Richard goes with Nat, fixes his car, and asks for a ride to a nearby town. Of course, from here a series of roadblocks pop up, sending Richard and Nat on a road trip. During the cross-country adventure, the initial excitement over Richard’s no-fucks-to-give worldview gives way to annoyance and even downright danger. The one thing I’ll say in the favor of “The Long Dumb Road” is this no mere Hollywood “bad guy with no manners”—Richard might actually be a total sociopath. And I like that the film doesn’t sentimentalize people like this, although it makes for a tough trip as Nat, and the audience, grow to really dislike half of this film’s starring duo.

As with a lot of road movies, “The Long Dumb Road” can’t avoid its episodic nature. The guys go to New Mexico to track down Richard’s high school sweetheart (Casey Wilson) so Richard can tell her he’s always loved her. They end up flirting with a couple of sisters (Taissa Farmiga and Grace Gummer) at a motel. But Richard always messes things up. And, sadly, so does Fidell. Directing a comedy like this one, a piece that has an abrasive personality at its center, requires an incredible sense of timing and tonal balance, both of which are way off here. Scenes go on too long or feel cut short. The rhythm is just off in shocking ways. And all of that hope that this would be the vehicle that gets Mantzoukas to stardom dissipates with each passing scene. By the end, I had to remind myself how much I liked Revolori in “Dope” or Mantzoukas in nearly everything he’s been in. When a movie is forcing you to question what you liked its stars in before, you know it’s gone way off the beaten path.

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