Chronic pain rarely earns a place on the big screen. That’s an astounding representational oversight, considering upwards of 100 million Americans—more than those with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer combined—suffer from the condition. Daniel Barnz’s 2014 Jennifer Aniston starrer “Cake” most recently dealt with the complex issue, but now another independent feature is stepping up to tackle chronic pain. Paul Lieberstein’s “Song of Back and Neck,” which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, is a droll, romantic, and ultimately cathartic story of pain and compartmentalization.
“Song” follows Fred Trolleycar (Paul Lieberstein), a nice guy who, despite his phenomenal last name, is definitely finishing last. Strictly opposed to stirring the pot, he succumbs to back and neck pain, intolerant coworkers, and callous doctors. His pain is so severe he’s learned to perfect his morning routine while scooting around on the floor, reaching for things and propelling himself with his feet. When Fred meets Regan (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is seeking representation with his law firm, he becomes enchanted by her. At once self-deprecating and devil-may-care, Regan is the kind of person who would rather spill coffee onto a carpeted floor than awkwardly balance an overflowing mug. She’s witty, charming, and way into Fred despite being way out of his league. She recommends acupuncture for Fred’s pain, and, despite his Western pragmatism, Fred jumps at the suggestion.
Unfortunately, Regan is also married, and their romance—though insanely charming—hits some inevitable roadblocks. But while the romantic story in “Song” is fairly predictable, its dramatic narrative is anything but. Fred’s evolution throughout the film is its greatest strength and underlying focus. Though he starts out averse to extreme emotions of any kind—he believes, in fact, that people who express emotions are “selfish”—by the end of the film, he is a magnificent, screaming mess. This arc is inspired by Lieberstein’s own experience with pain and anger. “I don’t think I yelled once before the age of forty,” he wrote in a director’s statement for the film. “I had to rethink a good part of my philosophy, and the experience was so surprising and significant for me that it inspired this movie.”
Viewers will no doubt recognize Lieberstein as Toby Flenderson, the forever-friend-zoned HR head from the US’s take on “The Office.” Liberstein also served as one of the show’s writers for all nine seasons, and as its showrunner in seasons 5 through 8. Fans of Toby will feel at home with “Song,” drenched as it is in Lieberstein’s deadpan wit. “I hope no one comes into this office with a gun and shoots Atkins,” Fred flatly says of his twerpy higher-up. He is immediately referred to management, in part because his coworkers are unsure whether or not he is joking. Also as in the “The Office,” much of the humor in “Song” stems from unbearable stretches of awkwardness. Instead of veering into cringedom, though, these moments are often charmingly off-beat. Lieberstein and DeWitt’s chemistry plays an important part in that endearment, as they court each other with all the grace and suavity of two middle-schoolers.
“Song” sets itself apart from “The Office,” however, with its well-paced drama and indie structure. Key scenes often unfold out of chronological order, thus demanding the audience’s attention and challenging its perception. There is also, as the film’s synopsis enigmatically alludes to, a “very unusual talent” that Fred discovers along his journey, and which lends the film a refreshingly surreal bend. Though billed as a romantic comedy, it defies all preconceived aspects of that genre. Sometimes, this works; other times, it doesn’t. The film will definitely only appeal to a certain sense of humor, and it’s pretty cynical for a romance.
Ultimately, though, “Song” is an inventive story about an underserved subject. It provides never-before-seen filmmaking that’s as satisfying as letting go a long-suppressed scream. It’s austere without becoming grim, and silly without becoming twee. “Song of Back and Neck” is worth a watch—even if you’ll scratch your head more often than you’ll laugh. [B+]