Sometimes when watching a movie I inexplicably zero in on one aspect of production and it paints my perception of the entire film. With Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship, it was the score/incidental music. The music sounds like something picked out of a music library — not great and yet not innocuous enough, the sort of music that’s calls too much attention to itself by (ironically) trying to sound incidental.
The film is a mix of bromance and rom-com, but it feels more like two sitcom pilots grafted together. One sitcom is an office comedy, and the other sitcom is about a deluded writer. There are women between these two stories that join them together, and a kind of “boys will be boys” mentality as well, but mostly what merges these threads is that chintzy music.
Bert and Arnie’s Guide to Friendship
Director: Jeff Kaplan
Release Date: June 18, 2013 (VOD); June 21, 2013 (NYC)
Bert (Matt Oberg) is an author of bad books. He specializes in mildly literary and mostly chauvinistic bodice rippers with names like The Good Shepard, The Last Conquistador, and The Virgin Monster. Arnie (Stephen Schneider) is an alpha male in finance who sleeps with everything in sight, including Bert’s wife. Bert’s marriage breaks up, which sets in motion a series of not-quite-parallel, semi-related events in the lives of these two characters. It’s less friendship and more like a case of begrudging proximity. Eventually there’s another woman named Sabrina (Anna Chlumsky), who tries to satisfy different kinds of needs with each man.
Parts of Bert and Arnie seem like they were culled together from other works. There are obvious hints of The Office and Office Space in the Arnie scenes, and lot of the writer material in the Bert scenes feels familiar even though I can’t exactly identify where it comes from. It’s like running into someone at a party and forgetting their name, but you’re pretty sure you’ve met before… pretty sure. This sense of familiarity blunted a lot of the jokes, which don’t feel fresh, and sometimes feel like they’re trying too hard. Arnie gets drunk at a karaoke bar and it plays like drunk overacting. A college student tries to seduce Bert, and her voice has the cartoony congestion of Droppy Dog or Edith Ann from Sesame Street (if you’re old enough to remember her).
The movie that came immediately to mind while watching Bert and Arnie was a crummy 2000 film called Whipped, which similarly focused on friendships and a woman who comes between various men. I liked Bert and Arnie better than Whipped, and yet I think Whipped offered a small and ugly nugget of truth about sex and friendship whereas Bert and Arnie doesn’t go as far as it could. There’s something in Bert and Arnie that gets obscured in those jokes that try a little too hard.
Bert and Arnie are different aspects of desperate and clingy masculinity. Each of them grasps for an empty male identity defined by sex and power. These are older boys playing author and businessman. (Adolescent boys will be adolescent men.) You know these people. You work with them. You may go for drinks with them every weekend. In your worst moments, you are them. But rather than really get into the muck of these ideas and these people, Bert and Arnie goes for the obvious jokes and pauses for a laugh track that doesn’t arrive.
The jokes hit about half the time in Bert and Arnie, and I think that’s a consequence of the sitcom tone that director/co-writer Jeff Kaplan brings to the film. Part of me wonders what would have happened if Bert and Arnie were dialed back a bit. Sometimes comedy works best when the actors are lampooning the character types they portray but the characters aren’t in on the joke. In those cases, there’s not an implied, “I just made a joke,” after the joke; it’s more like “I’m being totally serious,” and (like Roger Ebert pointed out) it’s usually funnier to see serious people fail at being serious.
The lead performances of Bert and Arnie call attention to themselves like the writing calls attention to itself, and I wasn’t able to get lost in the film or get too engaged by the comedy. Much like that incidental music, I noticed distracting stuff rather than the material meant to hold my attention.