Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate nail the nobility of resentment in this winningly featherweight romantic comedy.
After living for more than a decade within the Apatovian slacker-comedy tradition, in which the joys of arrested development are smiled upon indulgently for a while before our heroes stride heroically and inevitably into maturity, it’s weirdly refreshing to see a romantic comedy where selfishness, resentment and sloth are presented as unabashed virtues. Such is the charm of Sophie Goodhart’s “My Blind Brother,” which takes an ostensibly dark premise — a man of few qualities attempts to steal his overachieving blind brother’s girlfriend — and turns it into a featherweight frolic as winningly unambitious as its central couple played by Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate. The film has “Netflix acquisition” written all over it.
Square-jawed and iron-willed, Robbie (Adam Scott) is a fully inspirational man. In spite of his blindness, he manages to excel at almost everything a sighted person could do, whether it’s running marathons, skiing or even driving a car short distances. A local small-town celebrity who stages various feats of strength to raise money for charity, Robbie has appeared on television six times in the last four years, as he’s all too willing to let you know. His brother, the resolutely unaccomplished Bill (Kroll), lives for his sibling, faithfully guiding him and running just behind every step of the way, huffing and puffing while Robbie strides along with ease. His supporting role in life seems fair enough, as he doesn’t seem to have much else going on.
The catch here is that Robbie is a smug, intolerable narcissist, while Bill is sympathetic in his sad-sack haplessness. He can’t even drink his sorrows away without screwing up: Fleeing his parents’ nightly liturgy of Robbie worship at home one night, he runs straight into a funeral wake at his favorite bar. Outside, however, he meets the ex-girlfriend of the deceased, Rose (Slate), whose attempt to break up with her boyfriend caused him to walk into the path of a bus. Each recognizing a fellow traveler on the road to nowhere, the two flirt by fantasizing about watching TV and sharing competing feats of self-worthlessness, and eventually wind up in bed — the rare two-way pity lay. Rose declines to share her number the morning after, however, and Bill sinks even further into depression.
It gets worse. Looking to assuage her guilt, Rose volunteers to work with the blind, and becomes Robbie’s guide for his latest venture — a long-distance ocean swim — quickly and almost accidentally becoming his girlfriend as well. Bill becomes their unhappy third wheel soon enough, and the rest of the film flies by somewhat predictably, with plenty of low-key screwball set pieces and awkward revelations as Bill makes one losing attempt after another to one-up his infuriatingly competent brother.
Belatedly expanding on her 2003 short of the same name, Goodhart never looks to reinvent the wheel here, and the film seems content with a drily functional visual palette. What sells it, however, is the writer-director’s ability to merge rudeness and sweetness without ever stumbling into cruelty or sentimentality. There are plenty of gags at the expense of the blind, but none ever cross into meanness, and the film allows Rose and Bill to slowly develop into happier people without ever forcing them to face anything so bourgeois as actual self-improvement.
None of this would work without a rock-solid cast, and Slate stands out in particular. A comedienne so utterly lacking in self-consciousness that she sometimes seems unaware she’s on camera, Slate can take something as simple as putting her panties on backward and turn it into a inexplicably uproarious bit of physical comedy. Scott plays slick smarm as well as anyone, and his refusal to allow himself to become the butt of any jokes only serves to make them even funnier. Zoe Kazan nails her limited scenes as Rose’s feckless roommate, while Charlie Hewson is good for some chuckles as Bill’s blind stoner buddy. Kroll is so droll he almost risks underplaying his utterly passive character, but his easy chemistry with Slate is always enough to carry the film.
SXSW Film Review: 'My Blind Brother'
Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight), March 14, 2016. Running time: 83 MIN.
A Low Spark Films presentation in association with Think Media Studios of a Safehouse Pictures, Low Spark production. Produced by Tyler Davidson, Tory Tunnell. Executive producers, Kevin Flanigan, Joby Harold, Joseph E. LoConti.
Directed, written by Sophie Goodhart. Camera (color), Eric Lin; editor, Jennifer Lee; music, Ian Hultquist; music supervisor, Nick Bobetsky; production designer, Lisa Myers; costume designer, Keri Langerman; sound, Marlowe Taylor, Paddy Hanlon, Kip Gynn; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Ian Stynes; assistant director, Jacques Terblanche; casting, Angela Boehm.
Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, Adam Scott, Charlie Hewson, Zoe Kazan, Talia Tabin, Maryann Nagel, Greg Violand, Barbara Pierce, Heidi Lewandowski