“On the Count of Three” is marketed as a “darkly comic” film. Well, there is a dark comedy and there is a darker comedy, and then there is a comedy like this – so dark that you wonder if the two words can realistically coexist in one sentence.
So it’s unclear what genre to place this edgy, albeit bumpy and disturbing directorial debut from talented comedian Jerrod Carmichael, a friends film that begins with said friends pointing loaded guns at each other with the intention of shoot at the same time (hence the disturbing title.)
Clearly, things will not go perfectly according to plan, as there will be no more films left. But, just one caveat: the feeling you might get right away and there of “I’m not really sure I can watch this” will likely stay with you for the full 86 minutes, even if you recognize the remarkable acting chemistry that Carmichael generates, directing himself, and Christopher Abbott.
So, let’s go back to that scene. It comes within hours of the gloomy winter day covered by the film. Without giving too much away, Val (Carmichael) and Kevin (Abbott) are longtime friends, but very different trajectories have led them to this sad parking lot. Val is working in a garden supply store and his best prospects seem to be a promotion to plan manager. He starts this work day by taking all assigned smoking breaks, which is not a good sign.
Val decides to visit Kevin and suddenly they are inadvertently presented with the opportunity to get Kevin out of the institution he is in. Thus begins a day in which both try to right the wrongs committed against them, and perhaps some have committed themselves.
The script by Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch makes a play effort to alternate between humor and pathos, lightness and despair, with occasional hits and even a few mistakes. (It’s a pretty daunting task, even without the broader references to issues like police racism and gun control.) What is consistent is a nerve-wracking unpredictability – we don’t really know how this day will turn out – and authenticity of the main actors, which make us worry even if we struggle to accept some of the elements of the plot. Without these clearly calibrated performances, the film would be wrecked.
Every man is given unresolved conflicts, some more compelling than others. Val, in a relatively subdued performance by Carmichael – who, through her comedy, certainly has experience in bringing humor to depressing places – has serious problems with her estranged father (JB Smoove of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.) She also has to deal with his inability to be a responsible partner of a trusted girlfriend, Natasha (“Carmichael Show” colleague Tiffany Haddish, underused in a small role).
As for Kevin, played more broadly by Abbott, he has a deep anger at a man, who now serves his country in the military, who bullied him in his youth. Worse still, there’s the creepy doctor who molested him in his youth. (Henry Winkler plays the hapless doctor).
Unsurprisingly, Carmichael proves to be a director who is nothing but self-confident and comfortable with the Inconvenient. He keeps the action moving: in some moments, the movie even feels like an action movie. A climax scene has an apocalyptic atmosphere and visually recalls one of the most famous friends’ films in American cinema, although the friends were named Thelma and Louise.
But it’s the acting that keeps the film afloat. Carmichael is a multifaceted talent and one wonders what he will do next, especially if his name is on the script next time.
“On the Count of Three”, a United Artists Releasing release, was rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for violence, suicide, pervasive language, and some sexual references.” Duration: 86 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Limited. Children under 17 require an accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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