Review: ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes,’ starring Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, An-Li Bogan, Drew Tarver, Michaela Watkins, Aisha Hinds, Rupert Friend and Nicole Byer

March 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Justice Smith and David Alan Grier in “The American Society of Magical Negroes” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“The American Society of Magical Negroes”

Directed by Kobi Libii

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles (and briefly in New York City), the comedy/drama film “The American Society of Magical Negroes” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and a few Asian and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A struggling artist is recruited to work for the secretive American Society of Magical Negroes, whose purpose is to make white people comfortable, in order to prevent black people from getting harassed and killed.

Culture Audience: “The American Society of Magical Negroes” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching inept and boring racial satires.

An-Li Bogan and Justice Smith in “The American Society of Magical Negroes” (Photo by Tobin Yelland/Focus Features)

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” could have been a clever and incisive comedy/drama about how racial stereotypes on screen can affect people in real life. Unfortunately, this dull and mishandled racial satire has bland characters, a weak story and stale jokes that repeatedly miss the mark. This terrible misfire also fails at spoofing romantic comedies.

Writer/director Kobi Libii makes his feature-film debut with “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” which had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” squanders the talent of its impressive cast by putting them in a movie that is as timid and insecure as its lead character. A movie poking fun at racial stereotypes needs to be bold and self-assured in what it has to say, instead of lazily filling up the story with derivative and unfunny scenes that have nothing interesting to say. Many of the movie’s cast members who are supposed to have chemistry with each other don’t have any believable chemistry, resulting in too many awkwardly acted scenes. That’s mostly the fault of the director and anyone else who made the casting decisions.

In “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” Aren Mbado (played by Justice Smith) is a 27-year-old struggling artist who is based in Los Angeles. Aren’s specialty is making sculptures out of yarn. The movie’s first scene shows Aren at an art gallery exhibiting his work. At this gallery event, there are hardly any buyers. The spectators don’t seem to understand Aren’s art. It doesn’t help that constantly stammering Aren has trouble articulating to people what his art is all about.

Aren (who is African American) experiences a racial microaggression when a white male attendee (played by James Welch) mistakenly assumes that Aren is a waiter, not the artist whose art is on display. Gallery owner Andrea (played by Gillian Vigman) notices this insult and tells Aren, “If you don’t stick up for your art, I can’t do it for you.” Because the exhibit is a sales flop, Andrea also threatens to cancel Aren’s exhibit before the end of its scheduled run. Aren begs Andrea not to cancel because he says he spent more than $3,000 on yarn and can’t afford any more.

Aren (who is a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design) didn’t think his life would turn out this way. Aren is nearly broke, and he has no other job prospects. He doesn’t want to do work that doesn’t involve his artistic skills. Someone who is quietly observing Aren at the gallery is a bartender, who is also African American. The bartender will eventually introduce himself to Aren and reveal why he has been watching Aren.

After leaving the event, Aren goes to an outdoor ATM in a dark alley and sees he only has $17.31 in his bank account, which is below the minimum ATM withdrawal of $20. A young white woman named Lacey (played by Mia Ford) walks up to the ATM to make a transaction, but she’s having trouble using her ATM card. She asks Aren to help her. It turns into a very clumsily written scene of Lacey loudly accusing Aren of trying to steal her ATM card.

Just at that moment, two young white men named Brad (played by Eric Lutz) and Ryan (played by Kees DeVos) happen to be walking by and they come to the “rescue” of Lacey, as Aren vehemently denies that he was doing anything wrong. It’s supposed to be the movie’s way of showing a “Karen” incident, where a white woman wrongfully accuses a person of color (usually someone black) of a crime, and the white woman is automatically believed.

Just as it looks like there might be an altercation and police might be called, someone comes to Aren’s rescue: the bartender from the gallery event. He had been secretly following Aren and now is able to smooth-talk Lacey, Brad and Ryan, by showing them it was all a misunderstanding. As a way to placate them, this mysterious stranger starts talking about how great the neighborhood is and recommends that they go to his favorite barbecue restaurant nearby. Lacey, Brad and Ryan then amicably leave.

Aren thanks the stranger, who then reveals who he is and why he is there. He says his name is Roger (played by David Alan Grier), and he is a recruiter for the American Society of Magical Negroes, a secret group of black people whose purpose is to make white people comfortable and less likely to cause harm to black people. As Roger says to Aren, the “most dangerous animal” on Earth is “a white person who is uncomfortable,” especially around black people. Roger also says that “officially,” the society is a “client services industry.” But “unofficially, we’re saving the damn world.”

Roger tells Aren that Aren seems to have the qualities to be an ideal member of the American Society of Magical Negroes. Aren has to go through a vetting process first. Aren is very skeptical about what Roger is saying, until Roger teleports them to the headquarters of the American Society of Magical Negroes, which looks a lot like an African American version of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the “Harry Potter” book/movie series.

In real life, the term “magical Negro” was invented by filmmaker Spike Lee as a way to describe a black character whose main purpose is to help and uplift the central white character in a story. This “magical Negro” usually has extraordinary abilities that are implemented to make the white protagonist’s life better. Some examples include the characters played by Will Smith in 2000’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and 2005’s “Hitch”; Whoopi Goldberg in 1990’s “Ghost”; and Michael Clarke Duncan in 1999’s “The Green Mile.”

At the American Society of Magical Negroes, the recruits are told that their white clients don’t know and aren’t supposed to know that they are clients. The recruits are taught what a “magical Negro” is supposed to do and are shown hologram-like examples, which are usually not-very-funny scenes of black men being subservient and fawning to white men. Oddly, and with no explanation, the movie has multiple scenes of black men grabbing white men’s crotches in these “magical Negro” scenes. There’s also a magical amulet that is used to gauge the level of “white tears” that a white person has, in order to determine how likely the white person will cause a racist incident that will make the white person look sympathetic.

The main teacher for these classes is a stern instructor named Gabbard (played by Aisha Hinds), while the society’s president is a wizard-like character named Dede Booker (played by Nicole Byer), who looks and acts like a low-rent fortune teller. Gabbard says of white people: “The happier they are, the safer we are.” Roger tells Aren: “White discomfort is your nemesis.” The number-one rule for the American Society of Magical Negroes is to keep the client happy.

One of the reasons why “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is so poorly written is that it never really shows why Aren is an ideal candidate for this group. The opening scene at the gallery is supposed to be the movie’s questionable “proof” that Aren would be perfect for this “magical Negro” job. But all the scene really shows is that Aren is a sad sack who’s terrible at selling his art. Nothing about Aren’s family background or social life is shown or explained, except a brief mention that his father is black and his mother is white.

The recruits for “The American Society of Magical Negroes” are told that if at any time, they show negative emotions to the white people who are assigned to them, then they will be expelled from the society and lose their magical powers. It’s supposed to mean that these expelled people will be more vulnerable to getting racist harm from white people. Dede tells the recruits that black people who aren’t part of the American Society of Magical Negroes will have a shorter life expectancy. It’s a faulty concept from the start, because racist harm can happen under a variety of circumstances, no matter how nice people are to the racists who want to harm them.

During a break from these training sessions, Aren goes to a coffee shop, where he accidently bumps into a woman in her 20s, and her coffee spills all over her clothes. They exchange banter in a “meet cute” conversation, where Aren tries to deny that he’s flirting with her, and they both try to act like they aren’t immediately attracted to each other, even though it’s obvious that they are. And then, Aren suddenly leaves without getting her name. You know where all of this is going, of course.

Aren needs the money that this “magical Negro” job is offering, so he agrees to be part of the tryout process, with Roger as Aren’s wryly observing mentor. One of these tests involves (not surprisingly) a white male cop named Officer Miller (played by Tim Baltz), who feels easily threatened in the presence of black men. It leads to some moronic, time-wasting scenes where Officer Miller needs help with masculine confidence, including being able to gain entrance into an exclusive, trendy nightclub.

When Aren passes the necessary tests, he becomes an official member of the Society of Magical Negroes. Aren is then assigned his first client: a design engineer named Jason (played by Drew Tarver) at a social media company called Meetbox, which is obviously a parody of Facebook. Aren magically gets a job at Meetbox as a graphic designer who happens to have his desk workspace right next to Jason’s desk workspace.

Almost everyone at Meetbox doesn’t seem like a real person but is portrayed in the movie as a stereotype. Jason is a tech dweeb with mediocre talent and almost no charisma, but the movie makes several un-subtle points that Jason is perceived as better than he really is, just because Jason is a white male. Jason has an attractive co-worker named Lizzie (played by An-Li Bogan), who just happens to be the same woman who met Aren at the coffee shop. More awkward conversations ensue.

The founder/CEO of Meetbox is an egotistical Brit named Mick (played by Rupert Friend), while the immediate supervisor of Lizzie, Jason and Aren is prickly Linda Masterson (played by Michaela Watkins), who cares more about being a sycophant to Mick than being a good boss. Meetbox gets embroiled in a racial scandal when people in Ghana get rejected from joining Meetbox because Meetbox’s facial recognition technology gives preference to white people. The movie never explains why only Ghana has this problem, as if black people only live in Ghana.

Several situations occur that show how Jason is unaware of how his white male privilege gives him advantages. Jason feels entitled to being thought of as superior to a more talented co-worker such as Lizzie, who wants the same job promotion that Jason wants. The movie shows that Linda is part of the problem too, since she uses coded terms such as Jason is a “better fit” than Lizzie to give an important presentation for an idea that came from Lizzie. Jason has no qualms about being unfairly chosen to lead this presentation.

Not surprisingly, Jason shows a romantic interest in Lizzie. Much of the movie is about a love triangle where “magical Negro” Aren isn’t supposed to let Jason know that he’s also interested in dating Lizzie. It all becomes so tiresome and tedious, because a lot of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios have no wit or charm.

Lizzie’s racial identity is not mentioned in the movie, except for Jason calling Lizzie “ethnic.” However, actress Bogan’s ethnicity in the movie’s production notes is described as Taiwanese/Irish. If “The American Society of Magical Negroes” really wanted to have more edge to its limp satire, it would’ve made the Lizzie character unambiguously white, in order to increase the racial tension between Aren and Jason.

It should come as no surprise that “The American Society of Magical Negroes” makes Jason a racist who doesn’t think that he’s racist. You can do a countdown to the “big racial confrontation” scene where someone goes on a rant about racism, as white people in the room get uncomfortable and try to deny racism. This scene falls flat, because Aren still ends up being sheepish and apologetic.

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” then goes off the rails into fantasy with teleporting scenes, as it seems to forget all about the movie’s original concept, and then takes a silly detour into wrapping up the conflicts over the love triangle. The performances in the movie aren’t terrible, but they aren’t impressive either, mainly because the writing and directing are so substandard. A “twist” at the end is an underwhelming commentary on sexist stereotypes. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” wants to tell some hard truths about racism, but the movie’s approach is woefully inadequate and lacking in credibility.

Focus Features released “The American Society of Magical Negroes” in U.S. cinemas on March 15, 2024.

Review: ‘You Hurt My Feelings’ (2023), starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague and Jeannie Berlin

May 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tobias Menzies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “You Hurt My Feelings” (Photo by Jeong Park/A24)

“You Hurt My Feelings” (2023)

Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy film “You Hurt My Feelings” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An insecure book author gets deeply upset when she finds out that her psychotherapist husband has been pretending to like her first novel, and this revelation leads her to question his honesty in the marriage.

Culture Audience: “You Hurt My Feelings” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, filmmaker Nicole Holofcener and satire-tinged comedies where people make a big deal out of problems that are very trivial in the real world.

Arian Moayed and Michaela Watkins in “You Hurt My Feelings” (Photo by Jeong Park/A24)

If you’re a fan of comedies that poke gentle fun at somewhat spoiled protagonists, then “You Hurt My Feelings” (written and directed by Nicole Holofcener) is the type of movie that perfectly fits this description. It’s a low-key and realistic comedy about people who live in the bubble of being privileged and neurotic New Yorkers. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is an actress queen for this type of character. This movie isn’t for everyone, but the performances are entertaining. “You Hurt My Feelings” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

In “You Hurt My Feelings” (which takes place in New York City), Louis-Dreyfus portrays Beth Mitchell, an insecure book author who is constantly seeking validation from people around her. The person whose opinions and respect that Beth values the most is her husband Don Mitchell (played by Tobias Menzies), who is an easygoing psychotherapist. Don is very laid-back and tolerant, while Beth is uptight and judgmental. Even though Beth and Don have opposite personalities, they’ve had a very long and happy marriage.

At least that’s what Beth thinks, until she finds out something that shakes her to the core: Don has been pretending to like the book that Beth is currently working on: her first novel, which is also her second book. Don is one of the few people whom Beth has let read the manuscript for this novel. She’s already feeling insecure because her first book (a memoir detailing the verbal abuse she got from her now-deceased father) was not the bestseller that Beth hoped it would be. The memoir wasn’t a total flop, but it had sales that were lukewarm.

Adding to Beth’s unease about her first novel is the less-than-enthusiastic response from her book agent. Not long before Beth found out that Don doesn’t like the manuscript, her agent Sylvia (played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson) told Beth during a lunch meeting that Sylvia doesn’t really like the manuscript either and thinks it’s not as interesting as Beth’s memoir. Sylvia commented to Beth in this meeting that there’s a lot of competition in the book publishing industry, which is always looking for “new voices.” Beth interprets this comment as Sylvia telling Beth that she’s old.

Why is Beth so insecure? It’s mentioned about midway through the movie that her father did a lot of emotional damage to her with his verbal abuse. He often called her “shit for brains” when Beth was a child. It’s a phrase that Beth says out loud to herself when she’s having moments of very low self-esteem.

Beth’s world is fairly insular, since most of the people she interacts with are family members and work colleagues. She teaches a creative writing class to people who are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Beth encourages her students to take risks in their work. It’s advice that Beth doesn’t always follow for herself. The movie later shows how Beth can be hypocritical in other ways.

Beth has a younger sister named Sarah (played Michaela Watkins), an interior designer who’s battling her own insecurities about her career. Sarah is married to a frequently unemployed actor named Mark (played by Arian Moayed), who’s frustrated that he hasn’t been able to land starring roles and get work more often. Mark also happens to be Don’s best friend. (People from Don’s side of the family are never mentioned in the movie.) Beth and Sarah have a cranky and forgetful mother named Georgia (played by Jeannie Berlin), who might be showing signs of early onset dementia.

Don and Beth’s only child is a 23-year-old son named Eliot (played by Owen Teague), who works at a marijuana dispensary. Even though Beth occasionally smokes marijuana, she tells Eliot that she’s uncomfortable with his job, because she thinks there’s potential for danger on the job, and she thinks that college graduate Eliot (who is an aspiring playwright) isn’t living up to his potential. Beth thinks it’s also why Eliot’s girlfriend Alison (who’s never seen in the movie), an aspiring lawyer, seems to be drifting away from Eliot.

“You Hurt My Feelings” is made like a compilation of scenarios that show different personal angles of Beth and her loved ones. Beth finds out about Don’s true feelings for her manuscript when she and Sarah spontaneously eavesdrop on Don and Mark in a sporting goods store. The way that Beth reacts is as if Don betrayed her in the most hurtful manner possible. Beth begins to wonder if she even she even knows Don at all.

The movie goes back and forth between showing Beth’s interactions with people, as well as the therapy sessions that Don (a doctor with his own practice) has with some of his clients. These therapy sessions seem to be in the movie to show how Don approaches problem-solving in his clients’ personal relationships, compared to problem-solving in his own personal relationships.

The movie’s opening scene shows Don in a therapy session with a bickering married couple named Jonathan (played by David Cross) and Carolyn (played by Amber Tamblyn), who say hateful things to each other. (Cross and Tamblyn are spouses in real life.) Don passively sits and listens, even though Jonathan and Carolyn clearly want the type of therapist who will give them advice on what to do about their marriage. And as time goes on, viewers see that Don’s non-confrontational style can be a detriment in his own marriage.

An early scene in “You Hate My Feelings” shows a wedding anniversary dinner that Beth and Don are having together at a restaurant. Don gives Beth a pair of gold leaf earrings as his anniversary gift. Beth gives Don a black V-necked shirt. They both smile and seem happy with these gifts during this romantic dinner. Later in the movie, it’s shown that these gifts are symbols of much deeper issues in Beth and Don’s relationship.

Louis-Dreyfus is the obvious standout in a movie where her Beth character is the main focus of the story. However, Watkins and Berlin also give terrific performances that skillfully balance realism with talented comedic timing. Menzies plays his part well as a somewhat bland but loyal husband, while the other cast members are part of the overall believability in their roles, which could easily have been played as caricatures.

Of course, many viewers won’t feel too sorry for Beth, because she has the type of comfortable life that many people would like to have: She’s healthy. She’s surrounded by people who love her. And she doesn’t have to worry about basic needs, such as food or shelter.

But truth be told, a lot of privileged people who have charmed existences in real life can’t see beyond their own trivial problems because they really have no reason or motivation to do so. The closest that Beth wants to acknowledge any type of “real world” suffering is volunteering with Sarah at a charity that gives away free clothes to underprivileged people. If Beth’s worst problem is finding out that her husband doesn’t like her latest book, then that’s a pretty good life to have.

The movie admits it at one point when Don comments to Beth about how she’s reacting to him not liking her novel: “The whole world is falling apart, and this is what consumes you?” Beth replies, “I know the whole world is falling apart … but this is my small, narcissistic world, and I’m hurt.” For all the neuroses and self-absorption on display, a movie like “You Hurt My Feelings” serves as a reminder that people who seem to “have it all” can still find reasons to be miserable if they’re not completely happy with themselves.

A24 released “You Hurt My Feelings” in U.S. cinemas on May 26, 2023.

Review: ‘Paint’ (2023), starring Owen Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ciara Renée, Lucy Freyer, Lusia Strus and Stephen Root

April 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Owen Wilson in “Paint” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Paint” (2023)

Directed by Brit McAdams

Culture Representation: Taking place in Burlington, Vermont, the comedy film “Paint” (very loosely inspired by real-life TV personality Bob Ross) features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Painter artist Carl Nargle, who has become semi-famous for making paintings on live television, has to reckon with his messy love life and a younger painter who has been hired to be his rival at the TV station where they work. 

Culture Audience: “Paint” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Ross and star Owen Wilson, but this rambling and unfunny movie is a “bait and switch” ripoff that goes off on weird and unwelcome tangents that have nothing to do with Ross.

Lucy Freyer, Owen Wilson, Stephen Root and Michaela Watkins in “Paint” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Paint” is one of the worst “bait and switch” movies of the year. A more accurate title for this dreadful dud would be “Like Watching Paint Dry.” That’s what it feels like to endure this listless and vapid comedy that fools people into thinking that it’s going to be a witty satire of Bob Ross. It’s really a bizarre mess.

Everything in the marketing of “Paint” gives the impression that the movie is supposed to about a Bob Ross-like character and a parody of how his talent and fame affect his life. But in the end, the only things resembling Ross in “Paint” are the character’s job, clothing and hairstyle. That’s why “Paint” is such a fraudulent film. The movie becomes a tedious repetition of the main character having problems with his female co-workers, as he sulks and frets about becoming a has-been.

As many people already know, Ross became famous for painting nature landscape portraits, often in real time on TV. He was the star/creator of the PBS TV series “The Joy of Painting,” which was on the air from 1983 to 1994. Ross had a soothing voice and gentle mannerisms that were both adored by his fans and insultingly mocked by his critics. Ross was also known for his 1970s hairstyle and clothing, but he wore this outdated look as if he didn’t care what people thought about it. Ross died of lymphoma in 1995, at the age of 52.

“Paint” (written and directed by Brit McAdams) certainly had the potential to take a smart and creative approach to a TV personality whose off-camera life was unknown to the vast majority of his audience. The movie looks like a series of badly written sketches strung together with the misguided assumption that just because the cast members are making mugging facial expressions for the camera, it’s automatically supposed to be funny. One of the biggest problems with “Paint” is that it’s filled with too many half-baked ideas that will leave viewers wondering: “What was the point of that scene? Where is this movie going? When is this garbage going to end?”

Owen Wilson portrays Carl Nargle, a painter artist who does paintings (mostly nature landscape portraits) live on TV, in a show that he stars in on the PBS TV affiliate in Burlington, Vermont. Therefore, unlike the real-life Ross, Carl’s fame has peaked as a local TV personality, not as a national or international TV personality. (“Paint” was actually filmed in New York state.)

The name of Carl’s show is “Paint With Carl Nargle.” Carl’s signature sign-off line is “Thanks for going to a special place with me.”He’s the type of painter who will give names to the things in nature that he paints, such as calling a blackberry bush Miss Marcy, or a naming a tree Arthur the Evergreen.

A montage in the beginning of the movie shows that Carl’s loyal audience includes senior citizens at a retirement home; lonely middle-aged women; and scruffy men who watch Carl’s show while they hang out at a bar. Carl’s dream is to have at least one of his paintings on display at the Burlington Museum of Art. Carl is stuck in the 1970s (including driving a 1970s van), but this movie is supposed to take place in the early 2020s.

Carl’s boss is a dishonest sleazebag named Tony (played by Stephen Root), who is the general manager of the TV station. Tony is the type of person who will insult people to their faces and then try to convince them it was a compliment. Tony is worried about the station’s declining ratings and tight budget. Carl is the most famous person who works at the TV station, but Carl’s ratings have also been sliding. Carl doesn’t think he’s replaceable, but Tony has other ideas.

Meanwhile, viewers quickly find out that Carl has a long history of getting romantically involved with his female co-workers. Tony’s assistant is Katherine (played by Michaela Watkins), who had a love affair with Tony more than 15 years ago, but their romance ended badly for both of them. As shown in flashbacks, after he became “famous,” Tony started to neglect Katherine. She cheated on Carl with a Vermont Mountain Express delivery guy (played by Ryan Gaul), in a one-time encounter. Carl then cheated on Katherine by having a short-lived fling with a co-worker named Wendy (played by Wendi McLendon-Covey), who is still bitter that Carl dumped her.

Wendy still works at the TV station, where she’s some type of producer for Carl’s show. Katherine has recently given notice to Tony that she’s quitting because she accepted a job offer to be the assistant to the general manager of the PBS TV affiliate in Albany, New York. Katherine seems to have mixed feelings about leaving Burlington. As the movie shows in several maudlin scenes, Katherine and Carl have not had closure over their relationship. Carl is still pining over Katherine, who shows signs that she’s still in love with him too.

A co-worker named Jenna (played by Lucy Freyer), who’s young enough to be Carl’s daughter, is very star-struck by him. One of the most cringeworthy aspects of the movie is how Jenna fawns over Carl and tries to seduce him. It’s supposed to be wry commentary on how Carl, who looks like a dork and has a limp personality, can still get young, attractive women to be interested in him because he has a little bit of fame. However, in “Paint,” it just comes across as looking creepy, awkward and misogynistic.

In fact, the way that all of the women are portrayed in “Paint” is creepy, awkward and misogynistic. There’s a scene where Carl is supposed to be interviewed by a young reporter named Alexandra Moore (played by Elizabeth Loyacano), who works for the Burlington Bonnet newspaper. It’s just an excuse for the movie to have Tony hurl some sexist remarks at her, and for Carl to assume that Alexandra wants to have sex with him as part of her interview.

The movie’s main storyline is a huge misfire. Tony hires a young painter to become direct competition to Carl. Her name is Ambrosia Long (played by Ciara Renée), who is another awestruck fan of Carl’s. Tony hires Ambrosia partly out of desperation and partly out of revenge, because Carl rejected Tony’s idea for Carl expand “Paint With Carl Nagle” from one hour to two consecutive hours. Carl thinks that if he started “cranking out” more paintings per year, it would decrease the value of his art.

Ambrosia is supposed to be everything that Carl is not: young, hip and edgy. She gets her own show. And as far as Carl is concerned, the competition is on to see if he or Ambrosia can get higher ratings. Ambrosia starts off being a little too edgy for this PBS audience, since her first painting is of a UFO spaceship spewing blood on a tree stump. This is the type of bad idea that “Paint” wants to pass off as “funny.” “Paint” also goes off on a tangent about Ambrosia being sexually attracted to Katherine and trying to seduce her.

Some other characters in the movie go in and out of the story, just to be punch lines that fall flat. One of them is Dr. Bradford Lenihan (played by Michael Pemberton), the elitist curator of the Burlington Museum of Art. Another one is Carl’s eccentric co-worker Beverly (played by Lusia Strus), who comes across as someone who could pass for Jennifer Coolidge’s drunk cousin, if Coolidge were playing an empty and uninteresting person. And there’s also one of Carl’s “superfans” named Mary (played by Sonia Darmei Lopes), who likes to paint the same things as Carl when she watches him on TV.

Renée tries to give some spark to her Ambrosia character, but the performance looks out of place with the performances of the rest of the principal cast members, who all look very bored. Viewers will be even more bored. There isn’t even that much painting in the movie. Carl is so self-absorbed and whiny, he quickly becomes irritating. Even if Carl is attractive to some people because of his fame, it’s obvious those are people who don’t have to spend much time with him.

“Paint” could have gone in an interesting direction if it had some type of focus on what kind of movie it wanted to be and what it wanted the story to say. Instead, “Paint” (just like a certain scene in the movie) is splattered all over the place, with too many scenes that go nowhere and a drab story that tries to pass off “incoherent” as “amusing.” Viewers will learn very little about the characters in this wretched movie, except that viewers will know by the end of “Paint,” they won’t care to see these characters ever again.

IFC Films will release “Paint” in U.S. cinemas on April 7, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on May 23, 2023.

Review: ‘Werewolves Within,’ starring Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, Catherine Curtin, Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén

July 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Catherine Curtin, Milana Vayntrub, Harvey Guillén, Cheyenne Jackson, George Basil, Sarah Burns and Sam Richardson in “Werewolves Within” (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/IFC Films)

“Werewolves Within”

Directed by Josh Ruben

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Beaverfield, Vermont, the horror film “Werewolves Within” features a mostly white group of people (with one African American, one Latino and one biracial Native American) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A newly appointed forest ranger arrives in Beaverfield, a rural city that’s in turmoil over a fracking debate and speculation that a killer werewolf is on the loose.

Culture Audience: “Werewolves Within” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Werewolves Within” video game and to people who are interested in memorable horror comedies with quirky characters.

Michaela Watkins in “Werewolves Within” (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/IFC Films)

There’s a particular art to blending horror and comedy that “Werewolves Within” achieves with goofy and quirky charm. It’s a well-cast movie that has obvious influences—namely, filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen 1996 dark comedy “Fargo” and filmmaker Edgar Wright’s 2004 zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead.” However, “Werewolves Within” (directed by Josh Ruben and written by Mishna Wolff) still keeps the wacky spirit of the Ubisoft video game on which it is based. It’s one of the few video-game-to-movie adaptations that isn’t an embarrassment to the video game.

“Werewolves Within”—which takes places during a snowy winter in the fictional rural city of Beaverfield, Vermont—has a wisecracking tone throughout the film but still maintains an aura of impending doom, as the body count begins to increase. When newly appointed forest ranger Finn Wheeler (played by Sam Richardson) arrives in Beaverfield to start his new job, he arrives in a city that’s plagued by divisive tensions over a fracking controversy. There’s also speculation that a wild animal (possibly a werewolf) is responsible for a recent bloody death of a hunter in the woods, nearly a month earlier.

Finn has his own personal issues going into this job. He’s very insecure about being perceived as a wimp who’s too nice. The first time that viewers see Finn is in his car, as he’s driving to Beaverfield. He’s listening to a self-help motivational podcast or audio recording to learn how to be an assertive alpha male. During the course of the movie, viewers will see that Finn (who was transferred to Beaverfield by the U.S. Forest Service) has to battle his own inner demons and insecurities, as well as the major problems that he comes across in Beaverfield.

“Werewolves Within” moves at such a quick pace that within the first 15 minutes of the film, Finn has met all of the characters who will be in this story. They are:

  • Jeanine Sherman (played by Catherine Curtin), the mild-mannered owner of the Beaverfield Inn, where Finn is living.
  • Sam Parker (played by Wayne Duvall), an arrogant executive from Midland Gas, the company that wants to buy land in Beaverfield for fracking purposes.
  • Cecily Moore (played by Milana Vayntrub), a friendly and talkative mail carrier from the U.S. Postal Service, who lives at the Beaverfield Inn rent-free in exchange for assisting with the inn’s cleaning duties.
  • Dr. Jane Ellis (played by Rebecca Henderson), a politically liberal, serious-minded sociologist and environmentalist who is vehemently against anything that she thinks is damaging to the environment, such as what Midland Gas wants to do.
  • Emerson Flint (played by Glenn Fleshler), a gruff and reclusive animal trapper who is the subject of a lot of the town’s gossip.
  • Devon Wolfson (played by Cheyenne Jackson), a vain millionaire who founded a tech company and who gave up life in a big city for a more laid-back lifestyle in Beaverfield.
  • Joaquim Wolfson (played by Harvey Guillén), Devon’s flamboyant and sassy husband who owns a yoga studio in town.
  • Trisha Anderton (played by Michaela Watkins), an uptight neurotic who has a passion for crafting and is the owner of Anderton Farms, which has been in her family for 90 years.
  • Pete Anderton (played by Michael Chernus), Trisha’s politically conservative, lecherous husband who has a wandering eye and wandering hands when it comes to women who aren’t his wife.
  • Gwen Sieczkowski (played by Sara Burns), a tough-talking mechanic who had a somewhat secret affair with Pete.
  • Marcus (played by George Basil), Gwen’s boyfriend who is unemployed, financally broke and very dimwitted.

These residents of Beaverfield have various opinions of what Midland Gas wants to do in Beaverfield. Beaverfield Inn owner Jeanine is reluctant to sell her property to Midland Gas, even though the company is offering her a lot of money to sell. Devon and Joaquim, who identify as progressive liberals, are inclined to be against what Midland Gas wants to do.

Meanwhile, Trisha, Pete, Gwen and Marcus think that Midland Gas will bring a lot of business to Beaverton, and they want to profit from it as much as possible. Cecily hasn’t expressed a strong opinion one way or another. But she does tell Finn that she likes her living arrangement, and that she hopes that the Beaverfield Inn won’t be sold to Midland Gas, which would demolish the inn for fracking activities.

The first time that Cecily and Finn meet, it’s at the inn, and there’s an immediate attraction between them. Finn isn’t as obvious about his attraction to Cecily when they first meet, because he tells her that he has a girlfriend named Charlotte, who’s in the city where he used to live. Charlotte is never seen in the movie, but her phone conversations with Finn make it clear to viewers that she likes to nag and henpeck Finn and doesn’t really respect him.

Finn decided to transfer to Beaverfield as part of his goal to be an alpha male, by taking on a challenge outside of his comfort zone. His relationship with Charlotte is somewhat in limbo because he doesn’t know how long he might be in Beaverfield. Meanwhile, Cecily notices that Finn and Charlotte’s relationship is on shaky ground. Cecily isn’t afraid to tell Finn what she thinks about it.

Because she’s a mail carrier who knows a lot of the personal business of the Beaverfield residents, Cecily is Finn’s main source of information and gossip about what’s been going on in Beaverfield. She tells Finn that Jeanine’s husband left Jeanine to run off to Belize with another woman. Cecily is also the one to tell Finn about Pete and Gwen’s affair, which appears to be over. Pete’s wife Trisha and Gwen’s boyfriend Marcus don’t know about the affair.

Finn doesn’t get a friendly welcome from Emerson. Immediately after Finn arrives in Beaverfield, Cecily gives Finn a written complaint about Emerson from Dr. Ellis, who has accused Emerson of illegal trapper activities in her complaint. When Finn goes over to Emerson’s cabin to investigate, Emerson (carrying a rifle and wearing wolf hide with the wolf’s head still attached) angrily chases Finn off of his property.

A huge snowstorm soon hits the area, leaving all transportation to and from Beaverfield temporarily suspended. Somehow, everyone in this story except for Emerson ends up at the Beaverfield Inn for shelter. And that’s when the killings start with a vengeance.

“Werewolves Within” has such distinct characters that it’s very easy to tell all of them apart from each other. The movie has fun with spoofing stereotypes. Dr. Sherman is an unsmiling, “gloom and doom” type who might or might not be a mad scientist. Gay couple Devon and Joaquim are fussy and argumentative. Trisha and Pete are superficial, materialistic and show hints of being racist and homophobic.

Although there aren’t many set pieces in this movie, which takes place in a very confined area, the production design is done well for this low-budget film. (“Werewolves Within” takes place in Vermont, but the movie was actually filmed in New York state.) Of particular note is the Axe Den, a recreational room that’s on the Beaverfield Inn property. It’s Cecily’s favorite place to hang out, and she introduces Finn to an empty Axe Den during the snowstorm.

The Axe Den is a kitschy place filled with vintage arcade games and a jukebox that has mostly pop songs from the 1990s. Ace of Base’s hit “The Sign” is prominently featured in “Werewolves Within,” with great comedic effect. And it should come as no surprise that the Axe Den is where the movie’s biggest showdown happens.

The very self-aware comedy of “Werewolves Within” doesn’t come at the expense of delivering a genuinely engaging mystery. Dr. Ellis has been able to determine in her makeshift lab at the inn that a wolf-like animal is responsible for this killing spree. However, some of the people trapped at the Beaverfield Inn aren’t convinced. Who or what is the real killer? The answer is revealed at the end of the movie.

All of the cast members handle their roles with aplomb, even though some characters verge on parody. Most of the emotional core of the film is with Finn and Cecily, who have to navigate their attraction to each other during the growing terror about the killer on the loose. Richardson and Vayntrub have believable chemistry as a would-be couple caught in this precarious situation. Their comedic timing is one of the highlights of “Werewolves Within.”

The comedy in the movie isn’t for everyone, because some viewers might find it to be too glib or too on-the-nose. But for everyone else—especially for people who like horror comedies with a cheeky tone— there’s a lot that’s appealing about “Werewolves Within.” This movie would make a great double feature with 2020’s “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” another werewolf horror movie that combines comedy with a murder mystery.

Ruben’s direction of “Werewolves Within” keeps it at a brisk pace (the movie’s total running time is 97 minutes), so there’s little chance of boredom setting in with viewers. The movie doesn’t over-rely on slapstick comedy but instead derives a lot of comedy from how the cast members interpret the snappy dialogue. “Werewolves Within” is the type of horror film where it’s very entertaining to watch these characters for the entire movie, even if you’d never want to be stuck in snowstorm with most of them.

IFC Films released “Werewolves Within” in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021, and on digital and VOD on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Bad Therapy,’ starring Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins

April 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anna Pniowsky, Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry in “Bad Therapy” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Bad Therapy”

Directed by William Teitler

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dark comedy “Bad Therapy” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asian Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged married couple go to a relationship therapist, who’s actually a manipulative, toxic person who tries to break up the couple.

Culture Audience: “Bad Therapy” will appeal mostly to people who like to see movies about troubled marriages or unhinged characters, but the film’s uneven tone and sloppy, predictable screenplay make this movie a disappointing waste of time.

Michaela Watkins in “Bad Therapy” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Bad Therapy” (directed by William Teitler) is supposed to be a dark comedy or a comedy/drama or a dramedy, but the movie’s three lead actors have such contradictory styles in their performances that it makes the entire tone of this poorly written film look completely out of whack. Nancy Doyne adapted the “Bad Therapy” screenplay from her novel “Judy Small,” which was the original title of the movie. However, the “Judy Small” book isn’t even listed on Amazon, so it might be difficult for viewers to find out how the movie differs from the book.

Judy Small is the name of the family/relationship therapist who wreaks havoc on the lives of a Los Angeles married couple—real-estate agent Susan Howard (played by Alicia Silverstone) and TV executive Bob Howard (played by Rob Corddry)—who are both in their early 40s and have been married for three years. Living with the couple is Susan’s rebellious 13-year-old daughter Louise (played Anna Pniowsky), who does things like smoke marijuana and defy her school’s dress code. Louise is Susan’s daughter from Susan’s first marriage, which tragically ended when her first husband (who was her college sweetheart) died in a fishing accident. Bob has apparently adopted Louise, since her last name is also Howard.

At the beginning of the story, Susan is feeling restless and discontented in her career and in her marriage. Being a single mother for five years has left her constantly worried about financial security, while Bob is the exact opposite and doesn’t think they need to worry about money. (It’s revealed later in the film that Bob is head of programming at a network called the Nature Channel, where he makes $125,000 a year.)

Bob suggests that they have a biological child together, but Susan doesn’t really like the idea because it would be difficult for her to conceive a child at her age, and she’s feeling uncertain about where the marriage is going. “I want a break from all the drudgery!” she wails at one point in the movie.

There are also indications that Susan is a worrisome control freak. She nags at Bob (who’s not overweight) about what he eats, by warning him that he could have a heart attack. During breakfast, after Susan leaves for work, he throws his bran oatmeal in the garbage disposal and orders a cholesterol-heavy meal over the phone from a local restaurant. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Susan has forbidden Louise from taking public transportation, presumably because she doesn’t think public transportation is safe enough for her 13-year-old daughter.

It’s clear that one of the reasons why their marriage has hit a rough patch is precisely because Bob and Susan are total opposites in their outlooks on life. Susan is someone who’s the type of person who’s very judgmental and likes to have specific goals and plans (and she tends to get anxious if things don’t go her way), while Bob is more of a “go with the flow” easygoing type of person. In the beginning of the movie, before they begin therapy, Susan also expresses regret that she and Bob didn’t properly discuss the issue of them having a child together. And now, Bob wants Susan to have a child with him, but she doesn’t share that same wish.

One day, Susan has lunch with her close friend Roxy (played by Aisha Tyler), who’s a materialistic and shallow trophy wife to a wealthy business mogul. Roxy tells Susan the happy news that she’s pregnant with triplets after going through fertility treatments. Roxy also mentions that she and her husband have been seeing a relationship therapist. Susan asks Roxy for the name of the therapist, because Susan says that she and Bob might need marriage counseling.

When Susan brings up the idea of marriage counseling to Bob, he is extremely reluctant, but Susan eventually persuades him. “If it will make you happy, we’ll try it,” says Bob. It won’t be long before Susan and Bob regret that decision.

Judy Small works in a small office in a strip mall—the first indication that her practice is not very successful. She starts off the couple’s first session by getting Susan and Bob to talk about themselves and why they think they need counseling. Susan does most of the talking during this first session, while Bob admits to Judy that he really doesn’t want to be there.

Susan tells Judy what her first marriage was like (it was very happy, she says), but her marriage to Bob is on shaky ground: “I want our marriage to be the real thing,” Susan says of her relationship with Bob. “For some reason, I don’t feel satisfied.” On the other hand, Bob doesn’t think their marriage is in trouble.

Susan actually does too much talking during that first session, because she reveals something that is news to Bob: She’s worried that Bob might start having inappropriate thoughts about Louise, now that Louise has hit puberty age. Susan bases this suspicion on how she thinks Bob has been looking at Louise recently. Bob vehemently denies that he thinks about Louise sexually, and he tells Susan how hurtful it was for her to think he could do something so heinous. Judy suggests that Louise join them in their next therapy session so that she can observe their family dynamics.

However, enough was said in this first session for Judy to see the cracks in the Howards’ marriage and to use those vulnerabilities to her advantage. One of the first clues that Judy might intend to cause trouble is how she openly flirts with Bob in front of Susan, by saying how extremely attractive he is and that he must get a lot of female attention. Of course, Susan misses this big red flag because she tends to be self-absorbed and is the type of person who loves to hear herself complain about her life.

Judy sees even more ways to manipulate the couple when Louise reluctantly joins them for the next session, and Judy sees that Louise resents Susan for being overprotective. And then, Judy’s devious machinations really start to kick into high gear when she suggests (and Susan readily agrees) that she counsel Susan and Bob alone in separate sessions. During these separate sessions, Judy uses information that they tell her to drive a wedge of distrust between Bob and Susan, especially when it comes to a past cheating fling that Bob had while he was dating Susan. (He lets this information slip during a solo session with Judy.)

As the therapy sessions continue, it becomes pretty clear that Judy wants to seduce Bob. And she encourages Susan to have an affair with another man, but Susan completely hates the idea and doesn’t want to do it. Because Bob and Susan have separate sessions with Judy, she’s able to manipulate them into thinking that they’re falling out of love with each other.

“Bad Therapy” has some dialogue and lines that are downright cringeworthy. At one point in the movie, Judy says to Bob: “Trust is like a muscle. Once it’s torn, it’s difficult to repair.”

It should come as no surprise that Judy has a dark past, which is revealed in the movie. There are also people from her past—including someone named Dr. Ed Kingsley (played by David Paymer)—who can threaten to expose Judy and her secrets. What could have been the most suspenseful part of the film is actually handled in a very clunky and unrealistic way.

In addition to the screenplay’s flaws (some of Bob and Susan’s actions make no sense after they see more of Judy’s true colors), the movie’s three main actors deliver performances as if they’re in three different movies.

Silverstone portrays Susan as an over-emoting neurotic who’s in a wacky comedy. (In “Bad Therapy,” she gives Jim Carrey a run for his money with rubber-faced expressions.) It’s by far the most annoying, worst performance in the movie, which is a shame because Silverstone is capable of doing better acting. (Her small but tragically impactful role in the horror film “The Lodge” is a recent example of how she can show good acting talent.)

Corddry is playing Bob as if he’s in straightforward drama, which this movie is most definitely not. Because Bob has cheated on Susan before (prior to their marriage), the movie drops major hints that he’s capable of cheating on Susan again, especially since she’s become a bit of shrew in their marriage. Unfortunately, Corddry (who was such a comedic scene-stealer in “Hot Tub Time Machine”) has almost no sense of humor at all in portraying Bob. It’s too bad that Corddry plays Bob in such a bland, forgettable way because Bob is a character who reacts to things, so the character had great potential for comedic possibilities, but it ended up being a missed opportunity.

As for Watkins, she comes closest to the movie’s intended dark comedy. But the way she portrays the unhinged Judy is as a hollow, not-very-smart villain. Even with some of the terrible dialogue in the movie, there was a way for Watkins to elevate the character’s “femme fatale” appeal, but she didn’t. Instead, Judy just comes across as creepy and weird, when charm and intelligence would be needed for this type of corrupt therapist to fool people.

One of the odd things about “Bad Therapy” is that it spends too much time veering off into subplots that are not necessary to the story. There are several scenes that show what teenage Louise does at school and in her free time that didn’t need to be in the film, except for one scene that takes place on a bus. While on the bus, Louise (defying her mother’s orders not to take public transportation) and her best friend Zooey (played by Paris Bravo) happen to see Judy walking down the street. It’s a scene where Judy shows her demented side.

And there’s another unnecessary subplot involving Bob’s co-worker Reed (played by Haley Joel Osment), who confesses to Bob that he’s had an office fling with someone in the accounting department named Annabelle (played by Sarah Shahi), who left her husband because of the affair. And now, Annabelle wants to run off with Reed and move to Mexico. Reed, who wants to break up with Annabelle, has a live-in girlfriend who’s eager to get married. Reed has no intentions of breaking up with his live-in girlfriend and moving to Mexico.

Reed tells Bob that he’s afraid that if he ends the relationship with Annabelle in the wrong way, she might accuse him of sexual harassment later to get revenge on him. Bob has no business getting involved, but he does anyway, by volunteering to talk to Annabelle about it. And where does he have this private and sensitive discussion with Annabelle that’s supposed to prevent a possibly messy #MeToo situation? In a bar, where Annabelle promptly puts the moves on Bob.

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal this subplot about Bob’s colleagues Reed and Annabelle, because it really has no bearing on what happens in the rest of the movie, which has one too many filler scenes. And the scenes that are necessary are just substandard and often dull, with awkward performances from the three lead actors. How bad is “Bad Therapy”? It makes Lifetime movies (which are often about troubled romances and crazy/evil women) look like masterpieces.

Gravitas Ventures released “Bad Therapy” on digital and VOD on April 17, 2020.

Review: ‘The Way Back’ (2020), starring Ben Affleck

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ben Affleck (pictured in front, at far right) in “The Way Back” (Photo by Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Way Back” (2020)

Directed by Gavin O’Connor

Culture Representation: Taking place in the beach city of San Pedro, California, the drama “The Way Back” has a racially diverse (white, Latino, African American) cast of characters representing the middle class.

Culture Clash: An alcoholic man, who was a star basketball player in high school, returns to his alma mater as a basketball coach while battling his addiction.

Culture Audience: “The Way Back” will appeal mostly to people who want to see stories about addiction or basketball (and there might be some curiosity over how the story compares to star Ben Affleck’s real-life personal problems), but the movie doesn’t show anything that hasn’t been done before in TV movies of the week.

Janina Gavankar and Ben Affleck in “The Way Back” (Photo by Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Not to be confused with director Peter Weir’s Soviet gulag-escape drama “The Way Back” (which was released in 2010), the 2020 release of “The Way Back” (directed by Gavin O’Connor) is a drama about an entirely different struggle: alcoholism and coping with the death of a child. Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a lonely middle-aged guy who’s living a dead-end, self-destructive existence in San Pedro, California. In the beginning of the story, he has a job as a day laborer in construction. When he’s not on the job, he gets drunk at local bars before he heads home, where he lives by himself. Jack is obviously in a lot of emotional pain, but the story unfolds in layers over why he’s in turmoil and why he’s become an alcoholic.

On one of the many days that he’s woken up with a hangover, Jack unexpectedly gets a call to meet with Father Edward Devine (played by John Aylward), the head of Bishop Hayes High School, a Catholic school that is Jack’s alma mater. Father Edward asks Jack if he would like to be the head coach of the school’s basketball team. He’s up front in telling Jack that the team loses almost all of its games, but they could really use guidance from Jack, who was a star basketball player at the school from 1993 to 1995. It’s also the last period of time when the Bishop Hayes basketball team made it to the national finals.

Jack’s immediate reaction is to say no, but Father Edwards pleads with Jack to think it over and call him the next day with his decision. Before he makes that call, Jack spends some time rehearsing the words he’ll say to decline the offer. The next thing you know, Jack is being introduced to the team as the new head coach.

The assistant coach is Dan Espinosa (played by Al Madrigal), an algebra teacher at the school. Dan graduated from Bishop Hayes High School a few years after Jack did. When Dan was a basketball player in high school, he idolized Jack. Dan wasn’t a very good player back then (he mostly stayed on the bench), so he knows his limitations and is excited about working with Jack.

“The Way Back” has two very different trailers. The first trailer, which is the more accurate one, shows how much of a screw-up alcoholic Jack is and how he happens to coach a basketball team. The second trailer takes more of a “feel good” sports angle by playing up the basketball aspects of the movie. There are some thrilling basketball scenes in the film, but the movie is really about Jack’s turbulent journey as an alcoholic.

During the course of the movie, viewers find out that Jack has been separated from his wife Angela (whom he calls “Ange”) for more than a year. Jack has been an alcoholic for several years, but his marriage reached a breaking point after the 2017 death of their only child, an 8-year-old son named Michael. (How he died is revealed in the movie, and it’s an emotional trigger when something similar happens to someone on Angela’s side of the family.)

Jack’s main emotional support system comes from his younger sister Beth (played by Michaela Watkins) and her family, which consists of her husband and pre-teen son and daughter. Jack’s mother has recently moved in with Beth and her family. Over a Thanksgiving dinner that turns argumentative, long-simmering resentments come to the surface.

Jack is somewhat jealous that Beth is doing better in life than he is, and it adds to his feelings of self-loathing. Beth shows concern over Jack’s obvious drinking problem, but he thinks she’s overreacting and being a nag. He’s also annoyed because Angela has recently called Beth, not Jack, to check up on Jack to see how he’s doing.

Eventually, Angela (played by Janina Gavankar) meets with Jack in person to tell him news that he wasn’t expecting to hear: She has a new man in her life (his name is Nick), and her separation from Jack is probably going to lead to divorce. Jack is upset, but he channels his frustrations into his new job as a basketball coach.

As the team’s new coach, Jack is abrasive and prone to cursing a lot. He gets reprimanded multiple times for his foul-mouthed, short-tempered behavior by the team’s chaplain, Father Mark Whelan (played by Jeremy Radin), who’s there for spiritual guidance and to make sure that the team and the coaches follow the school’s moral code of conduct.

There are many expected scenes in the movie of Jack doing the “shouting coach” thing. There are also some basketball scenes using borderline hokey freeze-frames and slow-motion shots that give this film a “TV movie of the week” tone. It’s during the quieter moments, when Jack is alone and facing his demons, that the movie has more emotional resonance.

Under Jack’s leadership, the team predictably starts to win games (as seen in the movie’s trailers), but this isn’t a basketball movie drama like “Hoosiers,” “Blue Chips” or “Glory Road” (all featuring “tough love” coaches), where the biggest thing at stake is a basketball championship. In “The Way Back,” the biggest thing at stake is Jack’s physical and emotional health. As such, the basketball players’ individual personalities aren’t given as much screen time as you might think they would get.

There are some standout players on the team. Brandon Durrett (played by Brandon Wilson), a withdrawn loner, is the most talented player and Jack’s favorite. As the team starts to win more games, Brandon comes out of his shell and gains confidence. He starts to think that he might have a shot at a college scholarship and possibly the big leagues of the National Basketball Association.

However, Brandon’s father Russ (played by T.K. Carter) never goes to see his son play and isn’t very supportive of Brandon’s basketball dreams. When Jack goes to visit Russ at his shrimp fishery job to encourage him to support Brandon, Russ brushes Jack off and tells Jack that basketball is a long-shot, short-lived career that will only disappoint Brandon. He wants to see his son succeed in a job where he won’t be considered “washed-up” by the time he’s in his 40s.

Other players on the team whose personalities are distinct are Marcus Parrish (played by Melvin Gregg), the team’s cocky showoff; sharpshooter Kenny Dawes (played by Will Ropp), who’s a ladies’ man; Chubbs Hendricks (played by Charles Lott Jr.), an overweight guy who’s predictably the team jokester; Sam Garcia (played by Fernando Luis Vega), the guy most likely to give pep talks to the other players; and Bobby Freeze (played by Ben Irving), who’s a solid team player.

In doing publicity for “The Way Back,” Affleck has given candid interviews about the parallels between him and the Jack Cunningham character. Over the past several years, Affleck has been open about his addiction issues (alcoholism and gambling), which were among the reasons for his messy divorce from actress Jennifer Garner, the mother of their three kids. During filming of “The Way Back,” Affleck publicly had a relapse in his alcoholism. And “The Way Back” director O’Connor says that Affleck had a breakdown during a scene in the movie where Jack meets with Angela and confronts his issues. The scene got so emotionally raw, says O’Connor, that he had to cut most of it out of the film.

Although that scene between Jack and Angela is emotional, it’s a lot more muted than what it could be. It didn’t have to be melodramatic, but it’s not a moment where people in the audience will gasp or get so emotionally moved that they’ll start crying—a reaction that happened a lot in the big confrontation scene between the estranged spouses in the 2019 film “Marriage Story,” writer/director Noah Baumbach’s award-winning divorce drama.

Affleck does a very good job in the role, but the movie’s weakest link is that it’s a predictable script (written by Brad Ingelsby) that handles the subject matter in a way that’s been done so many times before in movies and TV shows. That predictability is one of the reasons why it might be difficult to convince people to pay full price to see this movie in a theater. People might be more inclined to wait until “The Way Back” can be seen on a small screen. However, “The Way Back” isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours watching a serviceable drama. It’s just not the most essential film about basketball coaches or alcoholism.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Way Back” in U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “The Way Back” to March 24, 2020.

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