November 17, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michael Angelo Covino
Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and France, the comedy/drama film “The Climb” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two men, who are longtime best friends, have ups and downs in their relationship, which is often affected by jealousy and personal rivalries.
Culture Audience: “The Climb” will appeal primarily to people who like seeing low-budget films that take a bittersweet and comical look at a close male friendship.
“The Climb” is the type of dramedy movie that doesn’t really get made much anymore: It’s about two regular guys and their longtime friendship, with the movie taking place over the course of about 10 years. That’s it. There’s no real gimmick or hook, although there’s the predictable love triangle that threatens to permanently ruin their relationship. “The Climb” isn’t a barrier-breaking movie, but it has moments that are mostly relatable, even if they might teeter at times on the brink of absurd.
The two American friends at the center of “The Climb” are portrayed by the real-life pals who wrote the movie: “The Climb” director/co-writer Michael Angelo Covino plays Mike, while “The Climb” co-writer Kyle Marvin plays Kyle. “The Climb” is based on Covino and Marvin’s short film of the same name. Their real-life friendship helps with their acting in the movie, which at times is a tad amateurish, but it still has that underlying authenticity that shines through the acting. The ages of the Mike and Kyle characters aren’t stated in the movie, but it appears that the story is about the lives of these two characters from their late 20s to late 30s.
“The Climb” is not biographical, although in the production notes for “The Climb,” Covino and Marvin say that elements of their personalities are reflected in the characters that they portray in the movie. As Covino states in the production notes: “In the movie, there are heightened, extreme versions of traits we both have that aren’t necessarily our best traits—I’m not that big of an asshole, and Kyle is not that big of a pushover.”
It’s apparent from the first scene in “The Climb” that the character of Mike is the dominant “alpha male” in the friendship, while Kyle is the passive “beta male.” Mike and Kyle are riding bicycles up a rigorous incline in the French Alps. They’re supposed to be bike riding for “fun,” but it’s clear from all the strenuous effort put into their bike riding that there’s a silent competition between them to see who’s the better and stronger cyclist during this ride.
The friendly rivalry mood is broken when Mike tells Kyle that he has slept with Kyle’s fiancée, who is a French woman named Ava (played by Judith Godrèche). Mike downplays this affair by saying that it happened three years before Kyle and Ava began dating, but Kyle is still understandably shocked and upset that this secret is just now being revealed. And then Mike eventually admits that he slept with Ava after she and Kyle became a couple.
Mike has a tendency to be bossy and arrogant, because he always likes to be in control of a situation. He tells Kyle to keep pedaling, even after Kyle has heard this upsetting news about Mike and Ava’s affair. Mike also has a quick temper, because during this bike ride, he gets into a road-rage incident that lands him in the hospital. Shortly after Mike confesses to Kyle about the affair, a car drives up behind them on the road, and the car’s driver beeps the horn impatiently because Kyle and Mike are blocking the car’s way.
Mike’s response is to yell at the driver to drive around him and Kyle. The driver complies by driving past the two friends, but Mike won’t let things go, and he chases after the car on his bike. To Mike and Kyle’s surprise, the driver reacts by getting out of the car and beating up Mike, who is no match for the fighting skills of the driver. You’d think that Mike would be humbled by this experience. But no.
At the hospital, Ava shows up to visit. Although she seems to feel guilty that Kyle knows that she cheated on him with his best friend, Mike tries to shrug off everything and acts like Kyle will eventually get over it. Viewers will get the impression that a big part of Mike’s attraction to Ava is because she’s with Kyle, and Mike gets some kind of selfish and competitive pleasure out of being able to sleep with his best friend’s lover.
At any rate, Mike and Ava admit that don’t want to stay away from each other and they start to passionately kiss in Mike’s hospital room. And guess who walks by and sees them right at that moment? Kyle, of course.
The movie then fast-forwards to a funeral in the United States. The funeral has taken place an untold number of years later, perhaps three or four years after that scene in the hospital. It’s revealed that the funeral is for Ava, whose cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. In the years since Kyle found out that Ava and Mike had an affair behind his back, Mike and Kyle’s friendship soured. Ava and Mike got married, and then she died.
At the funeral, Mike and Kyle have obviously not seen each other for quite some time. Their “reunion” is awkward, to say the least. And then at the funeral, a hot-tempered Mike gets into a physical fight with a local gravedigger over the burial of Ava. Kyle, who has a “peacemaker” type of personality, intervenes in the fight and is able to stop it before things get really ugly. Mike then tells Kyle that he’s sorry about the affair with Ava. And it looks like Kyle and Mike sort of reconcile.
Since breaking up with Ava, Kyle moved on to a new love: a no-nonsense, opinionated woman named Marissa (played by Gayle Rankin), who is the dominant one in the relationship. It’s never stated exactly how long Marissa and Kyle have been dating each other, but one thing is clear: Kyle’s mother Suzi (played by Talia Balsam), who is also strong-willed and domineering, doesn’t like Marissa. Kyle’s father Jim (played by George Wendt) is as easygoing as Suzi is uptight.
Kyle seems afraid to stand up to his mother, because when viewers first see Marissa and Kyle together, they are in the basement at Jim and Suzi’s house, and Marissa is giving Kyle a pep talk where they both practice saying “no” to Suzi. The family has gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. And it’s where Kyle and Marissa make a big announcement: They’re engaged to be married.
Suzi isn’t thrilled, but there’s nothing she can do about it. And then she tells Kyle something that makes him uncomfortable: She’s invited Mike over for the family’s upcoming Christmas dinner because Mike “has no family.” It’s never explained in the movie why Mike has no family members.
Mike is now a bitter and lonely widower who drinks heavily. He once had an athletic body, but his toned physique is gone, and now he has a flabby “beer gut” and an unkempt beard. And when he shows up at the Christmas dinner, he gets drunk and embarrasses himself. You know what that means in movies like this: A Christmas tree, a Christmas gift or fill-in-the-blank will be unlucky enough to be in the path of destruction of the drunk person.
The rest of the movie follows Mike and Kyle as they mend their friendship and adjust to new dynamics in their relationship after Kyle and Marissa become parents to a son named Otis, and then Kyle and Marissa get married. Mike is the type of guy who isn’t used to being a lonely bachelor, so he has some jealousy over Kyle falling in love and making Marissa a top priority in his personal life. Will Mike try to sabotage Kyle and Marissa’s relationship?
Things aren’t completely rosy in Kyle and Marissa’s relationship. After Mike comes back into Kyle’s life, Marissa often feels like a “third wheel” when Mike and Kyle hang out together. And there are hints that Marissa might not be in love with Kyle as much as he’s in love with her.
Although “The Climb” has some slightly amusing moments, one of the biggest issues that people might have with this movie is that it doesn’t give much background information on Kyle and Mike. Backstories for these two friends would go a long way in explaining why Kyle puts up with so much of Mike’s obnoxiousness. The movie never really answers this question: Why does Kyle show so much loyalty to Mike, who doesn’t show much loyalty in return?
Some people stay friends with someone longer than they should because they’ve known each other since childhood or because family or money matters would make it awkward or inconvenient to end the friendship. But there’s really no reason for Kyle to keep Mike in his life. They don’t work together, they don’t seem to have much in common except for a shared interest in sporting activities, and they both have very different outlooks and priorities in life.
Someone as selfish and toxic as Mike is an example of that old cliché: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” But Mike isn’t a complete villain. He has a charming side to him and is the type of person who knows how to exploit people’s weaknesses, which is why Kyle is easily manipulated by Mike.
Still, the movie skimps on a lot of details. During the course of the several years of the friendship that’s shown on screen, it’s not really made clear what Kyle and Mike do for a living. (They’re obviously middle-class.) Mike’s home life as a widower is also a big mystery. Whenever Mike and Kyle are hanging out together, they’re usually at Kyle’s place or they’re out doing some activity together, such as bike riding or skiing.
Covino’s direction of the movie can best be described as “good but not great,” because the tone sometime veers into sitcom-ish territory. A more naturalistic comedic tone works better for the movie and should have been the overall consistent approach to the film. For example, there are a few things that happen during Kyle and Marissa’s wedding ceremony that are just a little too over-the-top, like a TV comedy that’s desperate for a “laugh track” moment.
The movie is divided into seven chapters with titles such as “I’m Sorry,” “Let Go,” “Thanks,” “It’s Broken,” “Fight On,” “Grow Up” and “Fine.” It’s an interesting creative choice, but because there are huge blocks of time missing from the story, structuring the movie like a book with chapters just calls more attention to these omissions and how many questions are left unanswered. (For example, viewers never get to see what kind of marriage that Ava and Mike had.)
The cinematography by Zach Kuperstein makes much of the story engaging. During the Christmas dinner scene, there’s a memorably long tracking shot that works really well, with the camera placed outside but viewers still being able to hear what’s inside. And the scenes with outdoor activities give viewers an immersive sense of being right there with the actors. (It helps to see this movie on the biggest screen possible.)
Above all, the banter between Kyle and Mike is the main reason to watch “The Climb,” because they have the type of friendship that will make people wonder how long it’s going to last and if there’s anything that Mike will do that Kyle wouldn’t be able to forgive. There are issues of masculinity and maturity that are just underneath the surface in almost everything they say or do. Kyle might be the “wimp” and the more easily manipulated one of this duo, but Mike has a lot of growing up to do. Viewers might have different answers on whether Mike or Kyle is the more co-dependent one in the relationship.
As for the women in the movie (namely, Marissa and Suzi, since Ava is barely in the film), they mainly exist to show that Kyle has outspoken women in his life whom he loves but they can also hurt him deeply. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t give Mike any context for how and why he acts the way that he does. It’s not necessarily about making him more likable, but it would give viewers more insight into his personality flaws.
There are vague inferences that Mike’s romantic relationships are often based in chaos. But because the movie shows almost nothing of Mike’s life except when it relates to Kyle, there’s a missed opportunity to show Mike as a more well-rounded human being instead of someone who exists to hang out with Kyle and to sometimes push Kyle’s emotional buttons. It would’ve been interesting for the movie to further explore how Mike’s mother or other women might have influenced his outlook on male/female relationships.
Despite some of the problems in story’s structure and character development, “The Climb” has an unpretentious, almost goofy tone that will endear it to people who want to see a good movie about male friendship without making it about over-aggerated machismo or slapstick buffoonery. There’s a familiarity to a lot of the movie’s material, but Covino and Marvin make a notable impression as “everyday guys” without being generic. “The Climb” is a movie about a friendship that’s more like “chosen family,” even when that choice sometimes get in the way of happiness.
Sony Pictures Classics released “The Climb” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020.