Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Never Quite Living Up To The Title, Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship Is Wonderful!

The Good: Funny, Interesting characters, Wonderful performances, Good pacing
The Bad: Largely unlikable characters who never quite live up to the title.
The Basics: Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship follows the casual intersections of the lives of two men who are complete opposites and the women they unwittingly share.

Lately, to get away from the obviousness of Summer Blockbuster Season, I have been taking in more art films. With my emphasis on independent movies all of a sudden, my wife turned to me last night and asked, “Have there been any that you have actually liked?” Sadly, none came instantly to mind. Fortunately, today that trend was broken by a fun independent comedy that had smart writing and good pacing all the way through. The movie that finally renewed my appreciation of art house films was Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship.

Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship is one of those rare independent films that makes me wish a small film could get a huge, wide release. The challenge for Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship is not that it is not good or does not look like a professionally-made film that used the best of each take as opposed to shot on a camcorder on one take (which is a disclaimer I did not used to feel I needed to make for indy films and it is worth noting that Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship looks fantastic!), it is that the movie will never be on enough screens to get it the attention it deserves. Usually in August, Summer Blockbuster Season blows out its last few special effects-driven movies alongside a slew of stupid comedies. Occasionally, there is one that is smarter than the others and actually hits, like The Hangover (reviewed here!) a few years back. Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship is funny enough and far smarter than The Hangover, but it will not be Summer Blockbuster Season’s sleeper comedy hit . . . simply because it is not getting a wide-enough release to generate that kind of mainstream response. But, for the art house crowd, this is the must-see comedy of this summer.

Opening with an interview that Arnie initially walks out of, Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship follows Bert, a pretentious writer of two literary works, and Arnie, a middle-management executive, telling their stories of how they met and developed a friendship. Arnie is the name Bert’s wife keeps calling out in her sleep and when he tries to get proof that her cooking class is paying off by buying all of the ingredients (but not the knives) needed to make swordfish, Bert confronts Arnie. However, his request for information on what is wrong with his knives leads Arnie to confess he has been sleeping with Bert’s wife, Linda. Bert, for his part, is more surprised that Arnie has a copy of his last novel, The Last Conquistador. Arnie’s womanizing soon catches up with him, though, and he is stabbed by a more jealous husband than Bert and during his recuperation, he learns his company is bringing in an outside firm to deal with a big new account that Arnie had hoped to oversee.

Arnie and Sabrina instantly clash, but soon start having sex. Out of nowhere, Arnie actually starts having feelings for Sabrina and he gets jealous of her segregating him from her other friends. When he discovers Sabrina actually likes Bert’s books, Arnie contacts Bert and proposes friendship. Despite Bert avoiding having sex with one of his students at the time, he initially refuses Arnie’s offer of going out for a beer. While Arnie stalks Sabrina with Bert in tow, Bert and Sabrina meet and hit it off. As Arnie and Sabrina’s relationship disintegrates, Bert wrestles with a critic who hates his work, a student who may or may not want to sleep with him (or use sex to get what she wants), and Sabrina, who seems to just want him as a friend.

What is so wonderful about Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship are the characters and the performances. Arnie is intentionally created as an utterly unlikable guy who has a great comedic reversal when he meets Sabrina. A womanizer with no plans to settle down, his life takes a swing to the opposite extreme for Sabrina. Motivated almost entirely by jealousy (not so much love . . .), Arnie becomes clingy and unsettling, but in a comedic way. His transformation as a result of meeting Sabrina is actually funny, if not entirely believable.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bert who is little more than a stereotype of a writer. Bert delivers many of the funniest lines, though, as his dialogue is laced with wit and a sense of humor written into his situations – like teaching a class on his two books and finding himself annoyed when a student proposes a resolution to the characters far more simple and in line with their characterization than Bert wrote them. Bert’s amazement early in the film that Arnie had his book and the clueless way he approaches Arnie with the knife are hilarious and the movie generates a ton of smiles beyond any simple catchphrase or moment.

Unfortunately, Sabrina is something of a nonentity in the film. She is an oddity to Bert at a time when he wants sex and she is basically an object to Arnie. Arnie wants very much to possess her and she never truly comes into her own; she is sought after by both, but not for any particularly incredible reason. In a similar vein, the film does not truly belabor even the pretense of a friendship between Bert and Arnie. Instead, Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship is something of a misnomer; Arnie uses Bert (and anyone else he sees fit) and Bert is a largely friendless guy. If the title was simply for irony, there is that, but it does not sell the film accurately.

What does effectively land Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship is the acting. Led by Matt Oberg (Bert) and Stephen Schneider (Arnie), Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship has wonderful performances that make the humor seem anything but forced. From Oberg’s exceptional delivery of facial expressions to convey what the lines (or lack of lines) do not, to Anna Chlumsky’s smirk at a key moment to Schneider’s ernest deliveries of some of the film’s most absurd or over-the-top lines, Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship showcases some young talent that is anything but raw or unconvincing.

It is Cristin Milioti, however, who steals her scenes in Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship. The only thing I had seen Milioti in prior to this was a lone episode of 30 Rock where she pulled off a spot-on Sarah Silverman impersonation in a memorable guest appearance. In Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship, she is totally different as the mousy, nasal student who pushes and pulls at Bert. She may not have a huge role, but she creates a memorable character in Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship who elicits the most laughs per appearance in the movie!

Ultimately, Bert And Arnie’s Guide To Friendship is the movie that fans of such things as Arrested Development (reviewed here!) have been waiting for; it is smart, funny, clearly well-written and has enough to the characters that it leaves viewers actually wanting to see more. That, more than a good independent film, is a rarity in today’s cinema.

For other worthwhile indie films, please check out my reviews of:
Mr. Morgan's Last Love


For other movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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