We all know without argument that doing drugs is both fun and cool–but can it make you a better person?
The Wave seeks to answer this question as lawyer Frank (Justin Long) skips out on his wife for a night so he can drink, make out with another woman, and drop some anonymous hallucinogen offered by a stranger in a furry blazer. What he comes to find, though, is that this drug is more than he bargained for, and as he trips through time and space he sees that life as an entitled upper-middle class chode isn’t such a great look after all.
Well, sort of.
Director: Gille Klabin
Released: January 17, 2020 (Limited, VOD)
There’s a line you have to straddle when you simultaneously want to tell a moral tale about the heartlessness of the rich and target your movie directly at moneyed college-aged bros, and The Wave fails to strike a balance. Anyone not from Frank’s class would see him as a reprehensibly bad dude from the get-go. He’s a lawyer (oh shit) for a life insurance company (double shit) who’s about to ingratiate himself to his boss by showing how the company can weasel out of paying the policy of a dead fireman (super omega shit). Worse than all that in the eyes of the film, though, is that Frank is an insufferable bore. His friend Jeff (Donald Faison) wants to take him out and hit the town the night before his big meeting (to ruin the lives of a fireman’s family, need I remind you) for drinks and celebration. Frank is so straight-laced and uptight, however, that he goes home and watches TV with his wife. In classic jocular comedy fashion, his wife is nothing but a scowling shrew who’s more mother than lover, so we’re all happy when he sneaks out of the house for drinks and immediately pairs himself up with another woman. As someone who goes to bed by nine every night so that I can wake up early and go to my full-time day job while juggling work in the gig economy, I can relate.
Worse yet is his first conversation with Theresa (Sheila Vand), a dream girl who gets the high-school-crush slow-motion closeup upon introduction. Frank’s flirtatious banter sees him explain his philosophy that the poor actually bring ruin on themselves by purchasing TVs, so he and the people for whom he works are blameless in their financial destruction. Not only do we find that this line of thinking is a turn-on for Theresa, because she’s sick of dudes who talk about how people need to be treated better, but she also knows that Frank doesn’t believe any of this. Why? Well, because if he did, then he would be pretty shitty, right? This is a fantastic salve for the privileged who identify with Frank, but for everyone else it might ring as more than a little bit false.
It’s the most obvious wink at white collar fraternity kids. Sure, a high-paying job that requires breaking others to climb the ladder is abhorrent in every sense, but it works wonders for the ladies, and we all know you’re a good person deep down anyway, so what’s the harm? The Wave wants to be a film about doing the right thing, but what it says is that it’s all right (and cool) to profit off the hardships of others, because we all know these people will do the one right thing–the one selfless act that will absolve them of all sin–when the moment comes. To help make this sweeping statement, The Wave introduces its central hallucinogenic hook.
While at a house party, our square wants to impress Theresa, so he moves to a back room where he meets a dude in a coat that looks to be woven from the fur of a dog or maybe a llama (it’s the most thought-provoking part of the movie) and drops an unnamed drug from a devil-headed vial. This sets in motion the titular waves that carry Frank through space and time. He first wakes up disoriented in the same house, stumbling through the ruins of the last night’s party with no wallet or memory of what happened. As he tries to unravel his exploits and track down Theresa, the waves continue to hit him, and he can’t control where or when he ends up. Think of it as John Dies at the End meets The Hangover, but not nearly as good as either.
Frank’s trips aren’t especially inventive or visually arresting. During his big meeting to revoke the dead firefighter’s coverage, colors warp and the voices of his boss and coworkers morph like they’re going through a Halloween voice scrambler. It’s nothing you haven’t seen in a DIY 90’s music video, and it’s the most you get of the drug’s effect. This is supposed to be Frank’s enlightenment moment when he sees the monsters that he works under for what they are, and the fact that it’s not all that removed from the everyday only hammers home the point that Frank is just a bad dude. And he still goes through with revoking the insurance policy. He doesn’t have a change of heart until he does a bunch more drugs, is held at gunpoint, and is warped back before the meeting again–and only then it’s to get out of the time warp he’s trapped in. As the movie deeply reminds us in the closest thing to a point it has to make, “The universe wants balance,” and I guess the only way to achieve that is to have one guy not fuck over one dead guy’s family one single time in all of human history. Powerful stuff.
Between his exploits of tracking down the drug dealer and figuring out how to free himself of the drug’s grip, Frank meets Theresa on a pastoral astral plain where they engage in conversations where Frank will say something like, “The stars never looked like that before,” and Theresa will respond with “Didn’t they?” with a faux profound lilt that won’t impress even the most stoned among us.
There are no great revelations to how Frank goes about freeing himself from the drug or redeems himself in the eyes of the universe. From the opening monologue you know exactly where The Wave is going, and it offers no surprises along the way. You might find a couple laughs more from the timing and delivery of the cast than from a consistently weak script that deals in nothing but generic archetypes. We have the white trash drug dealer and his bulky henchman, the quirky homeless guy, the no-nonsense cab driver, the wildcard best friend, and of course the evil boss. It doesn’t help that Frank’s boss, Jonas (Bill Sage) is only given three scenes in the whole movie to breathe, so we’re given no chance to think of him as any worse than the asshole we’re supposed to be rooting for.
Tying everything together is an ending (which I’m going to spoil right now!) which sees Frank give up all his money and ultimately sacrifice himself by stepping in front of Jonas’ car as he drunkenly speeds through the night. The mechanics of how all this works out I won’t explain, because The Wave barely explains them. As the police arrest Jonas and interview Jeff, he laments that men like Jonas will always get off no matter what trouble they land in. Then an officer assures us that Jonas will pay for his crimes someway–which lands as the least true bit of a film littered with half-assed platitudes and sanitized themes. There’s no suspending your disbelief far enough to believe that a life insurance executive can’t strut away from drunken manslaughter with a flaccid slap on the wrist. I mean, come on.
But with that Frank has sacrificed himself for the greater good, accomplishing little and signifying nothing–except, I guess, that he’s better off dead than poor.