Two men, one white and one black, point guns at each other in a 10 am standoff outside of a strip club. To viewers, it might come as a surprise, but the pair are childhood best friends. Instead of memories, now, a suicide-pact binds them together. Jerrod Carmichael’s feature directorial debut “On the Count of Three,” for which he stars, is a dark buddy comedy that struggles to cover its weighty topics—mental health and political correctness—due to the unassured hand of its creator.
As a study in depression, “On the Count of Three” unfolds with tantalizing ease. Val (Carmichael) shovels mulch for a living for a white manager who sees a shine in him. Val, however, does feel the same shine in himself. The detached mulch shoveler recently left his long-term girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish), and is prepared to hang himself in a men’s bathroom stall. Rather than proceed with his suicide attempt, he resolves to spring his best friend Kevin (Christopher Abbott) from a psychiatric hospital. The peroxide haired, quick-tempered Kevin, recently tried self-harm, too. Unlike Val, however, this wasn’t his first attempt. Kevin has been in and out of therapy for much of his life. So when Val busts Kevin out, he figures two suicides for the price of one, and brings two guns. His plan? Is for the pair to shoot each, you guessed it, on the count of three.
When Kevin hesitates, asking Val to live one more day so they might settle some unfinished before they die, Carmichael’s dark comedy softly switches to a tender road movie whereby both men face their past. Val, for instance, is estranged from his father (J. B. Smoove). Kevin, on the other hand, endeavors for revenge against both his former therapist and his childhood bully. After two brilliant turns in “Possessor” and “Black Bear” (two Sundance 2020 favs), Abbott’s encore as Kevin sees the actor showing a pure, spontaneous essence under a Robert-Pattinson-in-“Good-Time” exterior. His swing-for-the-fences glory is the obvious highlight in an underwhelming ensemble.
The ensemble, nevertheless, is the least of this dark comedy’s problems. With a more experienced director, “On the Count of Three” would feature studier visuals. See, Carmichael falls into several first-time director traps. For instance, he often cheats at his compositions by relying on dubbed dialogue. Using dubbed dialogue on its face isn’t terrible. It’s a common trick of the trade. But Carmichael taps the well past the point of dryness—he makes the dubbing so obvious the headier scenes are rendered inert—and the compositions, from a visual storytelling standpoint, offer little in return. He casts his spell; we fall under it. But then he cuts to a dubbed shot and suddenly breaks the magic.
The screen-partner bond between Carmichael and Abbott doesn’t gel either. While their characters represent two different sides of depression—manic (bipolar I) and bipolar II—their supposed life-long friendship comes off as far-fetched. Depression forces the afflicted to create barriers from the ones they love, such as Val breaking up with his girlfriend, but in this flick, both actors are truly off in their own worlds. Rarely do they communicate in the way buds do when they know each other’s habits. Rather, Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch‘s script finds greater interest covering hot-button topics than undertaking gritty character work. Most of the discourse—gun control, political correctness, bullying, mass shootings, and mental health—surprisingly, translates for keen laughs. One exception is an unnecessary scene involving the word “f — got”. On the other side is a great zinger directed at Papa Roach, and what joke isn’t there to make about Papa Roach?
‘“On the Count of Three” doesn’t overcome its directorial deficiencies until the final poignant stretch. The unfinished business, finished, finds the pair hurdling to a truly unpredictable ending involving a high-speed chase. Carmichael arrives at the precipice of sticking the landing as Val and Kevin share a truthful love, the kind born from sacrifice, the kind missing from much of the film. He slips, however, in a scene that recalls “If Beale Street Could Talk,” but without Barry Jenkins’ dexterity for quiet tonal explosions. A good movie exists in “On the Count of Three.” But a film with such challenging subject matter needed a more experienced director capable of shading the dark comedy and the heartfelt spirit with an assured visual hand. [C-]