Whether it was how she unsteadily trailed behind the titular character from behind in “A Teacher” to simulate the feeling of drowning or let her teenage characters often be overwhelmed by the vibrant colors that suggested more interesting things elsewhere than their longterm relationship would allow in “6 Years,” there’s been an aesthetic playfulness about Hannah Fidell’s films so far that suggested that underneath her flair for the dramatic lurked someone who could excel at the mischiefmaking of comedy. Her latest, “The Long Dumb Road,” bears that out, ironically elevating her first foray into funny business above most in the genre by taking it seriously.
There’s a dignity Fidell and longtime cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (“A Ghost Story”) give to Nathan (Tony Revolori) and Richard (Jason Mantzoukas) that the two personally find themselves lacking in, treating the sunsets they see on their cross-country drive as ever so slightly out of their grasp. A healthy mix of the authenticity of the Pacino-Hackman ramble “Scarecrow” and the raucous absurdity of Spade and Farley’s “Tommy Boy,” the film follows Nathan on his way to Los Angeles where he plans to study photography at art school, but almost immediately is stymied by a car that won’t start, which conveniently Richard is around to fix after quitting in a blaze of glory at the gas station Nathan has stopped at. Richard isn’t entirely sure where he wants to go, but trades his services for a ride and digs the idea that his crude and accrued street smarts that have made him unemployable may be able to help Nathan, and as these things tend to go, the far more polite Nathan starts to wear off a little on him as well.
Still, with Fidell co-writing the script with Carson Mell, the outre comedy genius behind “Another Evil” on staff at “Silicon Valley,” you know that “The Long Dumb Road” will take plenty of detours from the beaten path, both comedically and dramatically. Not only does a compatible odd couple form between Nathan and Richard, but Fidell and Mell create characters made interesting by their inherent contradictions and the director is smart to let actors more known for their comic chops, such as Casey Wilson (playing an ex of Richard’s), have slightly heavier scenes while letting the typically dramatically-oriented Grace Gummer and Taissa Farmiga, as a pair of sisters that are seemingly perfectly suited partners for Nathan and Richard that they meet along the way, get a little goofy.
The shrewdest casting, however, is Mantzoukas, who practically explodes off the screen with a starring role worthy of him as the wounded, feral Richard. Long able to come in for the kill with guest spots on shows such as “The Good Place,” expressing innocent, irrational bewilderment like no one else, he bestows a kindness to Richard that undercuts his volcanic temper tantrums, showing how being a man-child has gotten him as far as he has as people warm to his naive charm, though it prevents him from ever entering a stable, mature relationship. Likewise, Revolori still so adept at deadpan humor after starring in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” proves to be a perfect foil, well aware the guy who’s often in the driver’s seat is more combustible than the car’s engine, yet willing to put his faith in both to get him where he needs to go. Meeting the two halfway, whether geographically or en route to the people they can be while appreciating who they currently are, Fidell makes “The Long Dumb Road” well worth the trek in creating something as poignant as it is funny.
“The Long Dumb Road” shows at Sundance on January 26th at 9:30 p.m. at the Eccles and January 27th at the MARC.