Wyatt Russell, Meredith Hagner and Alex Karpovsky in "Folk Hero & Funny Guy"

Tribeca ’16 Review: An Opening Act That’s As Good As It Gets in Jeff Grace’s Debut “Folk Hero & Funny Guy”

In the interest of full disclosure, I made a small contribution to the Kickstarter campaign for “Folk Hero & Funny Guy,” an investment that likely made no difference to the production, but I considered quite sound based on the strength of writer/director Jeff Grace’s work as an actor in Todd Berger’s deft apocalyptic comedy “It’s a Disaster.” As good as Grace is at delivering dry one-liners, he may be even better at finding the depth in a slim scenario, crafting interesting characters and consistently involving stories beneath the laughs and if there was any question whether he’s a complete filmmaker, it’s erased within the opening moments of his feature debut, a strong and swift introduction to his two leads, Paul (Alex Karpovsky), a struggling comedian and Jason (Wyatt Russell), a successful singer, during the opening credits that allows the film to hit the ground running and never let up.

After following a typical day out for the pair in split-screen — Paul getting up to work at a job he hates to keep his standup act alike while Jason sleeps in, accompanied by a groupie presumably – “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” leads into an evening in which the childhood friends reunite, just as Paul is told by a comedy club manager (Michael Ian Black) that maybe it would be a good time to “recharge,” noticing that his routine about e-vites is now longer working for the crowd. Jason, who clearly would give the shirt off his back for anyone in need (as played so winsomely by Russell), offers to have Paul as the opening act of his latest tour, hitting up smaller venues than he’d usually play across the East Coast. While Paul is reluctant, Jason shows up with his tour bus the very next morning, leaving Paul with no other option. The two soon become three when Jason extends a similar invite to a singer/songwriter named Brynn (Meredith Hagner), who they meet at their first stop in New Jersey.

Although “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” could be described accurately as a road movie, it doesn’t go through the motions like most, however can be considered moving in any number of ways. Nancy Schreiber’s cinematography, filled with evocative colors and choice angles, sets the tone for the lively ride that Grace has set up for Paul, Jason and Brynn, who ditch the bus for a Volvo station wagon in short order and hoof it through Lancaster, PA, College Park, MD and Virginia Beach, en route to Charleston, SC where Jason has some personal business to attend to. Though Paul’s comic material is hopelessly dated, the same can’t be said for the sharp observations Grace makes and he is exceptionally generous to all his characters – that Brynn is on equal footing with Paul and Jason as soon as she graces the screen is notable (a winning, revelatory turn from Hagner, who wrote a number of her own songs, helps) and even the smallest parts are given great personality whether it’s a marijuana-dealing assistant hotel manager (Blaise Miller) in Pennsylvania, a mild-mannered but cutthroat DJ in Charleston (David Cross), or a fan of Jason’s (Heather Morris) whose increasingly ridiculous machinations to bed him results in one of the film’s funniest bits.

However, in telling the tale of two friends at a crossroads, much of the time comparing themselves to each other as a yardstick of their own progress often at their peril, “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” hits a number of unexpected and poignant emotional beats, ringing as beautiful and true as the film’s soundtrack, largely provided by Adam Ezra (said after the film to be the inspiration for the Jason character). Karpovsky and Russell have an easy rapport, but more impressively, they both play their characters as adults rather than arrested adolescents, a show of respect to those watching it that’s laced throughout the film and makes it all the more satisfying when they can break through what’s holding them back – or not, as the case may be. That Grace leaves the room for both possibilities is one of the many reasons “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” is so special because it never feels less than honest, which for being as entertaining as it is, is no small feat.

“Folk Hero & Funny Guy” doesn’t yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Tribeca Film Festival at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park 11 on April 17th at 8:30 pm, April 21st at 6 pm and April 23rd at 8:45 pm.

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