If you want to make a mumblecore comedy about the existential ennui of a bunch of thirtysomethings who are frustrated that their dull day jobs don’t fit their artistic ambitions, it’s hard to find a subject more fitting than wedding videographers. Many videographers are aspiring filmmakers who gave their lives to their craft, only to find out that the practical world only needs them to film drunk, obnoxious people dancing awkwardly to stale disco tunes. It must be doubly depressing to have to deal with such personal disappointments while being exposed to mostly bloated expressions of wedded bliss day after day.
Alex (Phil Hanley) is such a figure. Writer/director Pavan Moondi’s uneven but fairly engaging comedy “Sundowners” opens with a wedding that Alex is shooting. Amongst the giddy faces dancing the night away under gaudy, colorful, borderline seizure-inducing lighting, Moondi focuses on Alex’s disinterested face. Looking bored and dejected, he’s as disconnected from the festivities as humanly possible. Even when the groom offers to party with him, he turns him down. When you turn down free booze because you want to get the hell away from your job as soon as possible, it might be time to think about changing careers.
Unfortunately, Alex is running short of cash, and has to keep taking wedding videographer jobs in order to stay on top of his rent. This tricky situation is made harder by the mere existence of his boss, Tom (Tim Heidecker), who expects ILM level special effects from his wedding videos, since he fashions himself as the head honcho of a major movie studio: The Kevin Feige of basement-dwelling hucksters. Heidecker predictably steals the show as he creates an unapologetically self-deluded and obnoxious douchebag. This makes sense, since Heidecker is a fairly big get for a film with such a meager budget, and Moondi cleverly offers him a meaty supporting role. The strategy pays off, if only to revel in the existence of “Sundowners”’ funniest scene, where Tom treats his wife like a secretary, only to get an earful of insults from the other end.
Anyway, Alex’s financial woes might be over, since Tom’s about to send him to a resort in Mexico to film a wedding. Needing a photographer to accompany him, he convinces Tom that his friend Justin (Luke Lalonde), who has zero experience with photography, is the perfect man for the job. The question that immediately swirled in my head was, “Why!?” Why would Alex so blatantly risk the outcome of such a critical opportunity to give his buddy a free trip to Mexico? An unceremoniously introduced and immediately dropped sub-plot shows Justin’s ex (Leah Fay Goldstein) asking for half of the money from an abortion. However, this isn’t followed by a scene where Justin tells Alex about this situation, pushing Alex to offer him the photography job out of a desperate attempt to help his friend. Hell, Justin doesn’t even look like he’s planning on paying his half. The lack of reasoning here is a curious oversight.
As soon as the duo arrive in Mexico, “Sundowners” plunges into an immediate identity crisis: is it a subtle Noah Baumbach-style existential dark comedy about finding one’s place in life in their mid-thirties, or an 80s sex romp about a bunch of horny dudes getting into a series of wacky hi-jinks as they get wasted and do anything to get laid? Is it “Greenberg” or “Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise”? It’s ballsy to even try to mix such disparate tones, but such an undertaking unfortunately requires a more seasoned filmmaker. Hence we get scenes about Alex and Justin frankly discussing their disappointments in life, only to be followed by a sequence where Justin tries to convince Alex that the surefire way to bag hot babes is to ask them if they want to fuck right away.
Moondi makes it obvious that we’re supposed to identify with these characters, warts and all, the way such a dark comedy usually asks us to. But when their behavior suddenly switches into the kind of callous decision making that’s usually reserved for protagonists in one of those “Bad (Insert job title)” movies, it’s hard to take these characters seriously within the mumblecore setting that the film tries to settle us into. The characters immediately switch personalities depending on the comedic needs of a scene, right down to a moment where the duo realistically discusses whether or not they should destroy the wedding just so they won’t have to work that day. The strong first act promises a levelheaded, character-based comedy that the Mexico sequences fail to deliver.
Another glaring issue is with the flat and always evenly lit digital photography. It might have been Moondi’s intention to implement a cheap wedding video aesthetic to his film, in order to perhaps match the understandably dull personalities of the main characters, but such an unrefined look misses the mark, as does the shaky-cam aesthetic utilized to give a documentary feel to the film.
That being said, the unevenness of “Sundowners” is almost saved by natural performances with decent comedic timing and Moondi’s focus on appropriate genre pacing. This particular project doesn’t entirely work, but the talent in front of and behind the camera shows a lot of promise. Phil Hanley is one of those somber comedians who look like he was born to play depressive personalities with an undeniably goofy quality. Luke Lalonde, more of a musician than an actor, brings a natural charm to his part. I can imagine Moondi one day producing a character-based comedy on par with Duplass or Baumbach’s work, with hopefully a stronger focus on character and tone consistency. [C]
“Sundowners” will premiere at the Nashville Film Festival and will then travel to BAFICI in Buenos Aires.