Slackjaw | Zach Weintraub | USA | 2015 | 71 minutes
Micro-Wave Cinema Series, 4070 Vilas Hall, Sunday, September 18, 7:00pm»
James Kreul meditates on the range of his responses to the anti-comedy and funny staging of Zach Weintraub’s Slackjaw.
I had a funny response to Slackjaw. Funny strange, then funny ha-ha.
At first I was convinced that the filmmakers believed that the material was much funnier than it actually was. I think we’ve all seen these kinds of films: really fun to shoot with friends and colleagues but it doesn’t really matter if general audiences actually laugh out loud. These films range from Burt Reynolds buddy-fests to Robert Altman misfires. Watching these films is often like looking at Facebook pictures and posts about parties to which you were not invited.
At some point in Slackjaw, however, I felt invited. Not right away. I was there for a while before someone offered me a beer. Okay, they told me where the keg was, which is different. And I had to stand there for a while in the conversation circle before I felt included. If you’re willing to stick out these kinds of social moments, Slackjaw will likely turn for you, too.
Slackjaw features some regrettably forced humor. Rob Malone’s hair and glasses are supposed to be funny (my emphasis). His dye job even gets a screen credit. His visage instantly marks his character (also named Rob) as a liminal figure between the hipsters and the sell outs, because his choices are from the wrong decade to be hip (or even retro) and too distinct to blend in. You get the rhetorical point of the hair and glasses almost instantly, which is different than laughing at a joke. His appearance is not funny. Until it is. And so are his expressions. And his gait. And his flip phone, and its ringtone.
The plot presents a series of dots but Weintraub is not particularly interested in connecting all of them. I’m still unclear about how the cold open fits temporally, despite the presence of elements we will see later in the film. Is it a cop out to say that I now find that funny?
Rob and his friend Austyn (played by Weintraub) apply to participate in medical tests at the local headquarters for a pharma conglomerate, EvCorp. Only Austyn is accepted, leaving Rob to wander through a town politically divided by the presence of EvCorp. On one hand we have Rob’s housemate Blaise (Blaise Hall) who seems to be involved in anti-EvCorp activism, and on the other hand we have Rob’s renewed friendship with Jesse (Jesse Rudoy) who currently works at EvCorp.
Aimless Rob ends up spending quite a bit of time with corporate Jesse, despite their differences. “Where’s your guys’s recycling?” Rob asks Jesse. “It’s in the trash, bro,” Jesse responds. Jesse tries to compensate for selling out by reprising a song that he and Rob played in high school. Needless to say, it is an awful song.
Pro and anti EvCorp lawn signs are everywhere. But even the political divide seems to be part of a larger conspiracy, as a political debate we first hear from computer generated voices is repeated verbatim by townsfolk. And, oh yeah, there’s also something in the food? (Cue the music as Rob feels something wrong with his jaw.)
What eventually won me over in Slackjaw was the occasionally goofy staging. As all of the rejected medical test applicants leave screen right, Rob attempts to go screen left in the background behind the classroom desks. He’s stopped by the supervisor in a lab coat at far screen right. The supervisor then slowly walks screen left, forcing without force Rob to awkwardly turn around and exit (again, his movement here is not laugh out loud funny, but it is still funny).
Some shots are needlessly difficult telephoto close-ups of Rob walking, like when Jesse first calls out to Rob as he leaves the EvCorp building. This moment could have been handled with more clarity with wider coverage (we don’t at first understand that Rob tries to avoid Jesse, and Jesse stays mainly outside of the frame even when they do meet to talk). But this moment, and several others, convey the feeling that the filmmakers (including Director of Photography Nandan Rao, whose films have also been featured at Micro-Wave) might of convened and said to each other, “You know, it might be kinda funny if we did it this way.” By the time we get to the shock cut to Go-Pro footage of Rob and Jesse on a wake board, we know the filmmakers have a strong sense of play.
The second half of the film is more conventionally funny. A patriotic hot dog eating contest sets up a comic situation related to the tile of the film. And horror tropes are played with as Rob gains more courage to investigate what is really going on with his friend Austyn in the EvCorp labs. There’s absolutely nothing funny about the last shot. Except that it is very funny, if you’ve been playing along.
If the humor in Slackjaw were any drier, it wouldn’t be humor. That would leave us with a well shot, well acted, admirable exercise in loose plot construction. But it is funny, dammit, regardless of how much laughter is heard on Sunday night. Like a lot of anti-humor, it will leave you smiling more than laughing at the moment, and laughing as you describe parts to other people afterwards.