I’ve come to a recent realization, and thus must make a confession: I rarely enjoy contemporary comedy films, but I love comedy on television. Give me Parks & Rec, The Good Place, or The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and I’m in stitches. Pure comedy films often don’t have the same results, and most of my favorite 21st-century comedies are either funny dramas (Lars and the Real Girl, Support the Girls) or auteurist fare (Moonrise Kingdom, Frances Ha). So when I was bumped from the screening for Pedro Almodovar’s latest film at Cannes, I went to the only other film playing at the Palais: Michael Angelo Covino’s debut feature film, The Climb. And while I may be overrating it and a second viewing could dull my reaction, I haven’t laughed this hard or been this pleasantly surprised by a 21st-century American comedy film in a long, long time. Both tender and rib-tickling, The Climb is a terrific comedy which is deadly serious about cinematography and mise-en-scène.
In the first of the film’s seven vignettes, best buddy dudebros Mike (Covino) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin, co-writer and real-life BFF of Covino) struggle to pedal their bicycles uphill in the French countryside. It’s shot as a one-take, the camera steadily pacing with the pair as they weave up the hill, capturing their conversation as it unfolds with rich sincerity. The writing here is remarkably good and the performances complement it wonderfully; one can discern similarities to Noah Baumbach or the mumblecore-era Joe Swanberg, but Covino and Marvin have crafted something altogether their own. The long take isn’t a distraction, but rather complements the comedy via framing and blocking–The Climb is as visually-driven as much as it’s dialogue-driven. As Mike tells Kyle, road biking is all about cadence, the rhythm of your legs’ movements which drive you forward at a steady pace. And The Climb has near-perfect cadence.
On the threshold of Kyle’s wedding to Ava (Judith Godrèche), Kyle makes a sudden confession to his best pal–he and Ava have slept together before. The confession is blunt and abrupt, leaving the tubby Kyle to try to catch the athletically-inclined Mike and throttle him. It’s one of the slowest chase scenes ever filmed (I mean, it’s an uphill bike ride), and it serves as the ongoing metaphor for the duo’s friendship–this relationship is a painful slog, weaving and wobbling back and forth, yet unrelentingly anchored in camaraderie and love. This confession of a sexual encounter with a best friend’s fiancee sets the mature tone of the rest of the film–it tackles adult themes like sexuality, death, addiction, depression, and relational boundaries with aplomb.
There are plenty of bromance films out there, but The Climb eschews those films’ conventions via both its narrative framing and its visual aesthetics. By the second vignette, we’re at a funeral for one of the guys’ wives (although we’re not sure of which one), and it’s both touchingly tragic and hilariously awkward. In a brief tangential scene, the cemetery workers sing a rousing hymn, “I Shall Not Be Moved,” as they use the backhoe to dig the grave. Moments like these reveal a knowledge of, if not an appreciation for, Christian religious traditions. During their opening bike chase, Kyle accuses, “You’re a real-life Judas.” “Well, I guess that makes you like Jesus,” replies Mike. In a late vignette at Kyle’s wedding to a new beau, Marissa (Gayle Rankin), Kyle’s sisters choose to read certain verses from the books of Ephesians and Revelation, such as “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” It’s hilarious in the moment, and it also demonstrates a sense of awareness of biblical content, at least enough to make an effective joke.
Beyond its visual humor and witty dialogue, The Climb manages to balance its treatment of toxic relationships with the reality of time and growing older. People change, for better and for worse. Yet there is still something about being known, something special about those friendships which feel like evidence that grace is real. Making and keeping friends as an adult is no easier than it was in junior high, which is perhaps why our best friends are the ones we’ve known for most of our lives (Brian, if you’re reading this, thanks for being a Kyle to my Mike).
Kyle’s mom (Talia Balsam) tells Mike at a Christmas party that Kyle is selfless, while Mike is selfish. “Stop being selfish,” she exhorts him. Easier said than done, of course. Mike’s sincere attempts to help Kyle often end up making bigger messes, which are both funny and piteous. Covino uses the vignette format to his advantage in this, allowing the audience to discern and discover what has happened during the in-between moments and assess where the characters stand with each other in this new time and place, keeping the narrative fresh and surprising. Covino and Marvin’s performances feel so natural, and whether they’re laughing or fighting, their relational chemistry in each scene is obvious. Indeed, the best of friends help us get up when we crash, cheer us towards the peaks and around the next bend, pacing with us as we try to figure out this life together. You could say they have great cadence.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8637440/