Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten make this scrappy indie romance a smart movie about class and coming of age.

Tramps PosterI learned something from Tramps. It turns out if you drive a “fucking SUV,” it means you’re an asshole.

That line alone says a lot about the class divide crossed in this indie romance. Adam Leon’s brief, punchy and charming film is a great love story between two cynical young people, but it also examines why so often there’s bitterness and distance between poor and rich people. Tramps is a movie that inspires its protagonists to reach for better lives than the crappy ones they’ve got, even as they look down their noses at those on the other side of the tracks.

When we first meet Danny (Callum Turner), he’s stuck running a bootleg, off-track-betting parlor out of his mom’s New York apartment. When all the old men from the building leave, he glares at his mom as though asking, “How did I get stuck in this life?” Then he gets a call from prison from his deadbeat brother begging him to do a probably illegal job. Pick up a suitcase, hop inside a car, and drop the suitcase off with a woman. The details are hilariously scant, but “he doesn’t have a choice.”

Then there’s Ellie (Grace Van Patten). One moment she’s on a train, and when the conductor arrives, in the blink of an eye she’s gone, hiding in the bathroom for a few more stops. She’s so poor and has enough problems with money that she can’t sort out the real problems in her life. One is some guy named Scott (Mike Birbiglia) pressuring her to be the wheelman in the same suitcase scam as Danny. He’s berating her all the while offering her a spot in his “queen-size bed.” Continue reading “Tramps”

Don’t Think Twice

Dont-Think-Twice-Movie-Poster“Don’t Think Twice” may be a little too real. It’s a movie about 30-somethings coming to grips with failing to meet their dreams and ambitions, which, for a 20-something still harboring those dreams, doesn’t exactly sit well. Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore film will ring true for any artist/creative type who has tried to cut it in New York or LA, even though the improv comedy troupe it depicts is a very specific personality.

Miles (Birbiglia) leads an improv comedy troupe known lovingly as The Commune, and their pre-show rituals, whether embracing a bear statue, chanting vocal warm-ups or impersonating the mousy stage manager, all echo the sensation of a caring support group. Comedy for these ambitious weirdoes needs to come from a place of bonding. In an opening narration, we hear the rules of improv: Always Say Yes, Don’t Think, and It’s All About the Group. They share a hive mind and get through each performance by supporting the other.

Of course this personality type, always being on, never saying no and being unable to turn off the improvisational urge, can quickly get insufferable. Birbiglia’s screenplay highlights the Commune’s narcissism, in which they’re always talking about their own projects and reflecting on missed opportunities. And yet he still allows their chatterbox mouths to run wild. “Don’t Think Twice” is about comedy and has funny moments, but it’s a far more subdued character drama that shows the mind of the improv comic instead of laugh out loud humor. As a result, sitting with them at bars or in their dorm-sized apartment can be like trying to get in on an inside joke. Continue reading “Don’t Think Twice”

Sleepwalk with Me

Mike Birbiglia has made a living telling stories.

Failing to be a one-liner comic like Steven Wright, he started telling his life stories live on stage to sympathetic audiences. Later, his therapist told him to put all his troubling stories down on paper. “Put it on paper. Save it for later,” Birbiglia said on one CD, because his bright idea was to publish these stories on a blog called “My Secret Public Journal.” He finally was discovered by Ira Glass and obtained a segment on This American Life excerpting these stories as personal essays in the vein of David Sedaris. He even got a one-man show off-Broadway telling these same stories.

It was only a matter of time before Birbiglia decided to make a movie out of this life story.

The resulting film is “Sleepwalk with Me,” an indie comedy about a struggling comic with a serious sleepwalking problem learning to wake up and live a better life than the pathetic one he’s daydreaming through. It’s a good-hearted movie that transcends the limits of his stand-up because he allows the details of his sleep disorder to serve as a broader narrative of his life.

He starts the film addressing the audience directly as though he were in a Woody Allen comedy or John Cusack in “High Fidelity.” We know from the onset how anecdotal and autobiographical this film will be. His character’s name is Matt Pandamiglio, but that too is a personal joke, reminiscent of all the early performances he had where emcees wouldn’t even try to correctly pronounce his name and make him Scottish.

His girlfriend of eight years, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), loves him and not-so-subtly hints at getting married and having kids, but Matt doesn’t seem ready. He’s turned off by the fact that his parents seem like two oddballs and yet have been together for 40 years. Is this what marriage does to you? What if the only reason he’s getting married is because his girlfriend is the best thing in his life at the moment, not because he has any level of maturity or financial stability to make his marriage all it could be?

Birbiglia asks these big questions with a feather touch. When most movie protagonists talk about how lame their parents and family are, they do so with an air of cynicism, but in “Sleepwalk with Me” everybody is pleasant, if not a little pathetic. He makes this movie about finding your confidence by laughing at and embracing that pathetic side. Continue reading “Sleepwalk with Me”

Your Sister’s Sister

Jack, Iris and Hannah are three lonely people spending the weekend in a remote cabin in the woods. But you wouldn’t know how lonely they are because now that they have each other, they really can’t bring themselves to shut up.

“Your Sister’s Sister” is a cozy romantic triangle drama between Jack (Mark Duplass), his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) and her sister Hannah (Rosemarie Dewitt). Jack has been in a funk for the past year since the death of his brother, who was also once Iris’s boyfriend. She sends Jack to spend time alone in the wilderness, only for him to bump into Hannah. Hannah just broke up with her girlfriend, and with enough tequila shots, flirty compliments, and adventurous encouragements, she’s willing to forget she’s a lesbian for an evening and spend the night with Jack.

Surprise! The next morning, Iris shows up, and while Jack and Hannah try to cover up their dirty deeds, Iris confesses to her sister that she may be in love with Jack.

These are all steamy, awkward conversation topics, but they approach them with nonchalant ease. Jack makes blunt comments about Hannah’s sexy butt, Hannah rudely brings up an embarrassing story about Iris’s bush, and Iris and Jack take turns sarcastically judging each others’ choices in relationships. It’s as if they gloss over serious conversation that might get real or uncomfortable by keeping up the chatter.

It’s so bogged down under their words that the movie forgets that Jack has serious psychological problems in his life and that Hannah may actually be an unstable person. Occasionally the movie name drops Fleet Foxes or “Hotel Rwanda,” but it mostly steers clear of any conversation topic that isn’t relevant to sex.

“Your Sister’s Sister” then is an actor’s movie. It certainly isn’t a visual one, because a majority of the film is seen in extreme close ups during these back and forth conversations. It annoyingly gets us right up into their faces and problems.

But some of it works because the three are all wonderfully convincing as friends and sisters. Iris and Hannah have a mutual understanding of one another that only comes through years of sisterhood, and the quiet moment they share looking at each other under the covers in bed is the movie’s finest.

The big argument near the end gets close to psychotic, and for all the talking that came before, “Your Sister’s Sister” suddenly runs out of important things to say just when things get tense.

2 1/2 stars

Cedar Rapids

“Cedar Rapids” is not your standard fish-out-of-water comedy because its hero is only breaking out of a very small bubble into a slightly larger bubble.

For Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), Cedar Rapids, MI may as well be the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, but we know better. That’s what makes this very familiar story interesting, clever and good-hearted, but also ultimately tepid.

Lippe is travelling to Cedar Rapids for an insurance convention, and he’s determined to come back to his small hometown in Wisconsin with the coveted Two Diamonds prize.

Having never left his hometown, Lippe is scared witless by these people with so much “worldly experience,” namely Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). The Deansie may be a womanizing, drunkard buffoon typical to these comedies, but he’s only crazy and outrageous on Midwestern insurance salesman standards.

Putting these characters on such a small scale is precisely what makes them endearing, and forcing them into a truly outrageous and raunchy scenario would be a betrayal.

But when a lot is made of this Two Diamonds prize, it serves as a notorious MacGuffin. The specific plot points already matter little in a movie like this, but when their dramatic conflicts are intentionally placed on a lower pedestal, the emotional payoff is nada.

And yet there are still charming moments of comedy throughout a very funny cast. Helms plays the dope amongst dopes so well that when he’s forced to sing in front of a crowd, we forget as an actor he does it all the time on “The Office.” Reilly is having a terrific year, and The Deansie is a memorable character just because of the way Reilly controls his body as a performer. Even Anne Heche as the love interest Joan is a congenial tomcat good for a few grins and laughs.

It’s a shame the rest of the movie feels so slight and insignificant around them.

2 ½ stars