I can’t imagine a town Ron Swanson would be less likely to take to than my own Brooklyn, NY. The vegans. The fixed-wheel bikes. The brunch cocktails. The horror. And yet, Nick Offerman took over the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend for four Q&A screenings of his new indie film, Somebody Up There Likes Me.
As surreal as it was to be in a room with the man behind the mustache, it was even more strange to see him in faded jeans, a very non-lumberjacky flannel, and a skull cap. Nick co-produced the film, and so did the honors of introducing it to us. I knew very little about Somebody Up There Likes Me going in, having only seen its purposely oblique viral promo. “Jesus Christ, Nick, are you doing an independent film?”
I was pleasantly surprised by the movie, a tight 76-minute comedy by writer/director Bob Byington. Somebody Up There Likes Me follows Max (Keith Poulson) through 35 years, focusing on his relationships with his best friend Sal (Offerman) and quirky wife Lyla (Jess Weixler). Max is charmingly weird and aloof, which progressively wears on the audience and his family as he flat out refuses to grow up. I mean that both literally and figuratively. Max has a blue suitcase in his possession whose contents emit an otherworldly glow and seem to keep him eternally young. The first question in the Q&A was predictably: “What do you think was in the suitcase?” Nick told us that he was fighting for a post-credits Easter Egg that caught a young Sal jerking off into it.
Byington’s writing style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, which may account for the 5.1 rating on IMDB. The screenplay is a series of lightning-fast set-ups and punchlines, often eliciting a simultaneous groan and chuckle. (“Are you good in bed?” “I get about eight hours.”) It worked for me, however, up until a last scene that felt tacked on. Bob told us in the Q&A that Max and Sal were written for Keith and Nick, respectively, and his familiarity with their styles and strengths is clear. The cast of mostly relative unknowns are right on with the rhythm of the material. Poulson and Weixler, in particular, are uncommonly good – Max in his stasis and Lyla in her transformation. And there are fun cameos by character actor Kevin Corrigan and Offerman’s IRL wife, the fabulous Megan Mullally.
I enjoyed the wordplay and performances so much and wish fervently that the magical realism element was more effective. Would the story of Max’s eternal childhood be any less meaningful if he did physically age? After a while, the magical case felt like a gimmick to make the film more of a festival piece. More effective in setting the indie tone were the animations by Bob Sabiston (A Scanner Darkly) and original score by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio.
Nick, Bob, Keith, and Jess were our guests for the post-show Q&A. I’m consistently conflicted about these sessions, because, while I love hearing artists speak about their work, I live in fear of secondhand embarrassment for irrelevant questions and people who ramble on about their opinion of the film without ever positing a query to the panel. For the most part, our audience was on point. Amending my earlier statement, the first question was ACTUALLY, “What do you think is in the briefcase?” which started a running joke between all of us on the difference between the two pieces of luggage. You had to be there. Offerman was obviously having a blast lightly ribbing those who did ask questions, and the tone in the room was playfully sarcastic. Also, Nick has the same exact giggle as Ron and it’s delightful.
The most insightful question came from a woman sitting directly in front of me who asked how the filmmakers had managed to create such a non-cynical film about such cynical people and failed relationships. I’m not just giving you my own opinion here, this question was actually deemed the best by the panel and its asker rewarded a handmade Nick Offerman original wood mustache comb, appropriate for use on “any part of the body.” There was one uncomfortable moment where a woman gave a long and convoluted treatise on how the film was “misogynist,” because Jess’s freeze frame in the credits was of her flossing her teeth. We’re talking about “magic semen” and THIS is the evidence you pick to make your somewhat addled point? Mmmkay. But the cast and filmmaker handled the moment with grace and humor, explaining how the scene in question was such a tentpole for Lyla’s character development and thus deserved to be our last image of her.
Somebody Up There Likes Me is in limited theatrical release and available on Video on Demand. Nick Offerman fans and indie comedy buffs – it’s certainly worth your time, especially if you have a secret fountain of youth.