During the three glorious seasons of “The Carmichael Show,” one of those rare shows that felt like each episode was a gift when it seems as if it emerged from the jaws of cancellation, Jarrod Carmichael would essentially box himself into a corner every week, taking on some culturally taboo subject and working through every angle of it within a family where the generation gap, gender, race and class would make for lively and often raucously funny conversation that never avoided uncomfortable places, a remarkable feat on prime-time network TV.
It shouldn’t surprise then that the premise of Carmichael’s narrative feature debut “On the Count of Three,” working from a script by “Carmichael Show” co-creator Ari Katcher and “Ramy” writer Ryan Welch, starts out with suicide as a uniting force between lifelong friends Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Christopher Abbott), both at the end of their rope but at different levels of commitment to seeing things through. There’s an opportunity for some truly dark humor with the premise you can’t think of too many others daring to touch, but what’s unexpected is how Carmichael, Katcher and Welch handle the two-hander, having a narrower range of perspectives to work with yet every line of dialogue is strikingly dynamic, the kind that lets you catch up to it as if it was the product of some contentious and considered back-and-forth that would make for an entire episode of “The Carmichael Show,” exploring a connection so strong between the two men that it isn’t too much to ask the other to shoot them in the face (in front of a strip club because “it’s a place with a lot of privacy at 10:30 in the morning,” as Val quips).
Although Kevin starts out in a psychiatric ward, only days removed from a previous attempt on his life, and Val can be seen being teased with a job promotion at his unsatisfying gig for a mulch manufacturer, the latter is in a far worse place than the former, having left his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish) out of fear of living up to any serious commitment to her and feeling that his friend’s suicide attempt was a sensible idea. Kevin reluctantly goes along with Val after he suggests that they make a pact to kill themselves, but asks for just one more day to say goodbye, ultimately deciding it might be a good idea to settle scores, visiting abusive figures in their lives – for him, a former psychiatrist (Henry Winkler), and for Val, his father (J.B. Smoove). From the moment Kevin’s seen at a diner by an old classmate, things don’t go according to plan, but the two know each other’s pain so intimately that it seems like in each other, there’s something worth living for even if they don’t see it themselves.
Still, the duo increasingly do things that they can’t walk back from, making suicide less a choice than a reasonable conclusion and “On the Count of Three” is about as adamant about going to the point of no return as its leads, feeling both dangerous and exhilarating when there never seems to be any safety net. The film is decidedly low-key yet the punchlines hit hard and Carmichael, who showed a real flair for setting the mood of standup specials he’s directed, elicits a wonderfully mischievous score from Owen Pallett and appropriately subdued but pointed camerawork from “Better Call Saul” cinematographer Marshall Adams. (Picking off that show’s scene-stealer Lavell Crawford as a former boss of Val and Kevin’s also proves to be a masterstroke.) For his part, Abbott delivers one of his most tender performances as Kevin, initially flinty and slightly strange, but clearly wounded, and Carmichael makes sure the rest of the film rises to that level of compassion, even when doing so isn’t easy and in general it deals in such grim humor. “On the Count of Three” is more evidence of what unique sensibilities the writer/actor/director has and confirmation of the skills to convey them in the most interesting way possible.
“On the Count of Three” will screen once more at the Sundance Film Festival for a 48-hour window starting January 30th at 4 am MT.