SXSW Review: Awful Nice


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Sibling rivalries are ripe territory for comedies. Those types of conflicts have a certain intimate venom to them — I know your secrets, you know mine, and I will destroy you. It’s the sort of situation where years-long resentments boil over and make a general mess of things. It’s funny because it’s family, and it’s more spiteful because it’s family, and there’s just a bit of sadness in there too (since it’s family).

There’s an example of this early on in Awful Nice. Jim (James Pumphrey) and Dave (Alex Rennie) are the squabbling siblings in question. They’re having dinner with family following their dad’s funeral. After a toast, Jim and Dave sip their champagne. They they eye each other, they realize that they’re inexplicably trying to gulp their champagne faster. The champagne done, they each pick up their glasses of beer. Then the water. The race continues with a gravy boat. And then they try to beat the s**t out of each other as their relatives look on shocked. (There’s an Alonzo Mourning rookie card involved in this too, one that I may have in a box somewhere.)

These kinds of absurd escalations into slapstick (and cartoon violence) are what Awful Nice does well, and it happens throughout the film, demonstrating a good eye for the gag from director/co-writer Todd Sklar.

Awful Nice
Director: Todd Sklar
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

To play up the oddball humor of a film about bitter rivals (related or not), there’s usually some contrast between the leads. The personality types for the two brothers are familiar: Jim is the responsible one, married, gainfully employed by a university, a published author; Dave is the screw up, and we first see him sleeping naked in a tepee with a pet tarantula in a foggy but otherwise empty pickle jar. Jim has to coax Dave to go to their dad’s funeral. Once there, they learn that they’ve inherited a lake house from their youth out in Branson, Missouri.

They could just cash in the value of the property with one of his dad’s business associates, played by a grumpy and aged Christopher Meloni. (I originally thought it was Michael Showalter beneath the sunglasses and the wig.) Rather than take the cash, Dave thinks he can rebuild the house with Jim, possibly to bond with his brother, but most likely because he’s a homeless, shiftless loafer and the lake house beats a tepee on the reservation any day. Jim agrees for some reason, possibly to bond with his brother, but most likely because it’s a good excuse to get away from the drudgery of his routine.

The fix-it job goes through a series of slapstick botches as the story progresses. Sklar does his best to avoid the cliches of the “house as a metaphor for relationships” films, and he’s generally successful. This is thanks in large part to the constant bickering between the brothers. There’s a definite acid-vs-base chemistry between Dave and Jim. Even though Jim is the guy who’s supposed to be with-it, he’s got a streak of mean-spiritedness and condescension that eggs on Dave’s devil-may-care free spirit. In the rare moments where Dave can one-up Jim, he relishes in it. Example (and I’m just piecing this together from memory, so it’s not exact):

Jim: You worked at a zoo! What do you know about fixing a house? All you did was clean up dog shit.

Dave: Excuse me, why would I be cleaning up dog shit at a zoo? I don’t think you know how zoos work.

Sklar co-wrote the movie with Rennie (who plays Dave), so there’s a certain quickness to the back and forths between the two brothers. With movies that are built on snappy verbal exchanges between two people, it really does seem ideal to have a second writer to bounce ideas back and forth with. The dialogue comes fast, the insults and jabs arrive quicker, and there’s a sense of personality that arises from comic beat to comic beat.

Beyond the verbal gags in Awful Nice, Sklar and the cast have a good knack for little details when they construct scenes around jokes. There’s the pet tarantula in the opening scene which helps lend an extra layer of sordidness to what Dave’s life in the tepee must have been like. A later throwaway moment involving Tabasco sauce also builds a sense of rough-and-tumble history. In the background in an office scene, there’s a piece of kitschy art that is so thrift shop-chic and so Branson. Awful Nice shoots from gag to gag rapidly, which makes the movie breeze by, and which fills each scene with a sense of expectation — here’s the set-up, now what’s the punchline going to be?

While Sklar and his team have a knack for episodic jokes, the last third of Awful Nice feels like it’s lacking something toward the end. It’s not bad and it thankfully doesn’t become sentimental in an unearned way. Sklar and his actors could have easily gone there, but the movie is resistant to such easy, feel-good moments that would undermine the bitterness of this relationship. I think that’s admirable, actually, since it’d be easy to go for some easy emotional beat and wrap up the film with a bow.

Instead I think the resolution comes a little too easy and it’s not as satisfying as everything that leads up to it. In some ways what happens is telegraphed well in advance, and for a film where the jokes seem to come out of nowhere, something that I could see coming feels a bit pat. In that respect, I wish the plot was treated more like the jokes in the film, that there’d be a sense of surprise to both the set-up and the punchline.

And yet I can’t completely hold the wrap-up to Awful Nice against it since it has a lot of other things going for it, like an inventive way of getting rid of wasp nests that involves a softball bat. It’s a short gag, just another episode in a series of fix-it misadventures. Jim is hesitant, Dave is certain it’s going to work. Of course it doesn’t work out quite as planned, but the joke is well-constructed and that’s what matters.

On to the next one.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.