I like to play a game called “Netflix Roulette.” Born out of my tendency to skip the depressing documentaries and sparse dramas I dutifully add to my queue, the game involves me closing my eyes, paging through my list, and watching whatever movie I land on, no excuses. I’m now convinced that there are higher forces at work, since last week the game’s result was a much-needed rewatch of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill. And The Big Ask is nothing if not a postmodern homage to The Big Chill.
This particular group of friends comes together not for a wake, but for the birthday of their buddy Andrew (David Krumholtz). Andrew has just lost his mom to cancer – type unknown, but described by Dave (Zachary Knighton) as “horrible” – so maybe that’s why the group doesn’t question his invite out to the middle of nowhere. They’ve rented a dusty ranch house in Joshua Tree, California; instead of a swim-up bar, they have a hot tub that has to be filled up with a hose. It’s desolate and removed, and so the group is from their daily lives. We don’t know a thing about them except what comes up in conversation during the trip. What they do, where they live, even how they know each other – it’s all a mystery. The Big Ask is about a moment in time, distanced from reality. I’d even argue that what happens in Joshua Tree won’t necessarily define these relationships for good. What happens in the California desert stays in the California desert.
The Big Chill is all about nostalgia and how the intense friendships you embark on in your youth inform the way you relate to other people forever. There’s nothing to be nostalgic about in The Big Ask. Has Andrew always been so spooky? Has Owen (Jason Ritter) always carried a torch for Hannah (Melanie Lynskey)? All we know is the dynamic that’s presumably heightened by the titular question. Andrew, who has refused therapy and prescribed for himself “a great wave of love,” wants to have sex with his girlfriend and his friends’ girlfriends, all at the same time. This will heal his wounds, he is sure. (Poor Hannah!) At first, we wonder why the other two couples aren’t peeling out of the sandy driveway immediately. But though we don’t know the specifics, the dependency among the friends is obviously deep (particularly among the boys and Hannah, I gathered). They want to be there for Andrew, but they’ll do it by helping him to move past this ridiculous request. What I found most troubling about the situation is that the ask seems to be more about Owen and Dave granting their permission rather than Emily (Gillian Jacobs) and Zoe (Ahna O’Reilly) making the choice. I can’t decide if Andrew’s “wave of love” is about being with three women who he feels close to or Owen and Dave benevolently “sharing” their women with him. Either way, both Emily and Zoe seem to find some sort of understanding of Andrew’s need for physical closeness. The Big Ask doesn’t delve too deeply into the sexual politics; it would be a different movie if it did.
I got lost in the last third of the film when a few of the Joshua Tree locals got involved; I won’t give away how. The Big Ask contains a lot of them; it opens up questions on grief, love, death, and friendship. And there’s no way to put a tidy bow on a story like that. The trailer tells us it’s a “dark comedy,” but I found it more a contemplative ensemble drama. It’s not a ha-ha-funny screenplay that Thomas Beatty wrote. But casting actors who – aside from Lynskey, I’d say – are mostly known for their comic chops helped establish the group as a loving and close one in those less fraught moments. And I’ll stop there, since Kim has plenty to say about the film’s performances.
Community‘s Gillian Jacobs. Happy Endings‘ Zachary Knighton. Parenthood‘s Jason Ritter. The cast list of The Big Ask reads like a roster of my favorite criminally under-appreciated television shows. Add in The Help‘s Ahna O’Reilly, Comedy Vet David Krumholtz (This Is The End) and indie darling Melanie Lynskey and you have one stellar cast. The cast truly functioned as an ensemble and there was a sense of ease and comfort in all their interactions and you truly believed that they had been in each others’ lives for a long time (O’Reilly’s Zoe felt like the newest addition to the group, which was an interesting dynamic). It’s a blessing and a curse because the biggest problem I had with The Big Ask is that it felt like it was a random episode in the middle of the fifth season of a television show I had never seen. That’s not to say it wasn’t a GOOD episode of a random television show I had never seen, but I would have gladly sacrificed the subplots with the Joshua Tree locals (one in particular) for a more in-depth look at these six friends (for example, it even implies on the POSTER that Owen carries a torch for Hannah…TELL ME MORE). What can I say? Once a completist, always a completist. Give me character and relationship development over random subplots any day.
While The Big Ask lacks in exposition and character exploration, it makes up for it in performances. While we the audience may not know all the history of these friendships, it’s clear that the ACTORS do in the way that they relate to each other on-screen. Krumholtz does a terrific job with an unlikable (to US, as again we don’t know the history) character. He plays Andrew with a detached kind of madness, to where we never quite know if he genuinely believes that his “great wave of love” will cure his grief or if he is bullshitting his friends just to see if he can get away with it. Andrew is so wrapped up in himself and his pain that he is blind to how his actions are affecting his girlfriend and his friends…it’s a very raw and ugly and REAL portrait of grief. Knighton, so delightfully dim in Happy Endings (RIP), continues to expand on the dramatic chops he showed during his arc on Parenthood this season. His chemistry with Ritter is fantastic; Dave and Owen have a definite yin and yang dynamic, with Dave being the more grounded (and cheerfully befuddled) one in contrast to the tightly wound Owen. Ritter’s Owen is a tough nut to crack: he’s immediately repulsed at Andrew’s ask, yet there is an instant sexual tension with Hannah, and Ritter plays this conflicted nature beautifully. The three men also relate to each other as lifelong friends WOULD. Theirs is the type of friendship where they would rather hire Andrew prostitutes and throw rocks at each other to get their aggressions out than sit down and actually discuss the motivations behind his request. It felt very true to life.
O’Reilly plays Zoe with a coolness that belies her inner turmoil (Dave has recently proposed and she’s mulling an answer). Zoe is clearly friends with all of these people through her association with Dave and O’Reilly plays her discomfort and “What have I gotten into with these people?” state of mind perfectly. You can tell that Zoe HAS become friends with Dave’s friends over time and does care about what’s going on, but you also sense that she could bolt at any minute…because these aren’t really her people. A situation like this one NEEDS an outsider to counterbalance all the long-standing emotions, and O’Reilly plays that role perfectly. Jacobs plays the free-spirited Emily with an innate sweetness and goodness. She is unassuming and just radiates warmth. I really wanted her to envelop ME the way she envelops Hannah as the ladies try to comfort her and get to the root of Andrew’s problems (a stark contrast to the said rock fight between the men). And the, in the third act of the film, Jacobs has a scene with Ritter where you see her character deflate within the span of a single sentence…and I wanted to be the one hugging HER. There are no shades of Britta Perry’s needless defiance in this performance and as a massive Community fan, it was a treat to see her excel here. You don’t ever get the sense that Jacobs is ACTING, she just has a natural screen presence that draws you in. If Hollywood still wrote good romantic comedies, I would be SCREAMING for her to be cast in one.
The film truly belongs to Melanie Lynskey, who is always terrific, no matter what genre. From the kind-hearted stepsister in Ever After (“I’m only here for the food.”) to being the woman who had a baby in a bar in Sweet Home Alabama to her truly chilling performance in Heavenly Creatures, she always brings her A-Game. Lynskey’s Hannah is truly a woman on the verge of a breakdown. She LOOKS like she has it all together and then she will grimace or purse her lips and you can see all the embarrassment, confusion, helplessness, pain, and rage simmering just beneath the surface. Lynskey finds all the nuances of Hannah’s emotional state and is just as effective when she is observing the action going on around her as she is when she actually opens her mouth. While Andrew is the anchor of the action of the story, I would argue that The Big Ask is just as much Hannah’s story. It’s not easy to see the person you love suffering and being unable to help them. It gets even worse when you are unable to tell that person that their suffering is causing YOU pain. You can tell that Hannah feels selfish when it comes to her pain, but she is also desperate to acknowledge that she is suffering too. It’s a wonderful contrast to Andrew and Lynskey plays it with such a quiet ferocity that I often just wrote “MELANIE LYNSKEY!!!” in my notes while watching the film. I’ll never understand why the big studios aren’t fighting over who gets to cast her next.
All in all, while I had many problems with the script and felt that it failed to expound fully on the outlandish premise, The Big Ask is worth seeing for its outstanding performances. I do agree with Sage that it is being completely mismarketed as a black comedy. It’s a character study in the way we react to grief and intimacy. It forces you to think and contemplate and it’s definitely a movie for adults…and they make far too few of those these days.
The Big Ask is in limited theatrical release and is also available through iTunes and Video on Demand.