After years of “best friend” supporting roles — interspersed with lead parts in wobbly pics like “The Red Baron” — German thesp Matthias Schweighoefer steps up to the plate with stellar results in U.S.-set road movie “Friendship!” This simpatico teaming with newcomer Friedrich Muecke, as two naive young East Germans who hit the Stateside asphalt after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89, makes for an entertaining and amusing (if totally forgettable) ride that, with the right handling, could generate some mild juice beyond home turf.
The movie has been second only to “Avatar” in Deutschland since its mid-January release, buddying up to more than $7 million in its first two frames, with legs to spare. Story is based on a real-life odyssey by (East German-born) producer Tom Zickler, whose black-and-white snapshots of his experience are shown during the end crawl.
Opening takes a lightly satirical look at former East Berlin, where Tom (Schweighoefer) and Veit (Muecke) have grown up to become unconventional amateur filmmakers. When the opportunity comes to travel abroad, the two go-getters decide to journey to San Francisco, where Veit’s father supposedly escaped to a decade earlier. Veit’s only proof of his dad’s location is an annual birthday card he gets from S.F., so he and Tom have four weeks to get there, hoping to spot Veit’s dad at the post office.
Unfortunately, the two bright young optimists have only enough money to fly to Gotham, where, after telling passport control they’re not Nazis but communists (“Friendship!” they cry), they’re hauled into a back room and body-searched. Worse, they then realize their $55 will only get them as far as New Jersey, so they decide to hitch — initially with wacko Darryl (Todd Stashwick) to his hometown in Tennessee.
Though the pair have only limited English, and even less knowledge of the U.S., the script soon soft-pedals linguistic and cultural misunderstanding as its main source of humor. The early going certainly trades on such jokes (“Do communists eat children?” asks Darryl), but by the time the duo reach the U.S. hinterlands, almost getting it on with two local babes, the pic’s humor is more of the feel-good variety.
With eye-catching widescreen lensing by onetime Roland Emmerich regular Ueli Steiger, sophomore director Markus Goller, a commercials vet, produces an ultra-slick package indistinguishable from a mainstream Yank production as the pair subsequently get mixed up with a gang of bikers (nods to “Easy Rider”), then borrow a car, get arrested for driving doped and half-naked, and end up in New Mexico. Here, they fall in with a (conveniently) German-speaking local, Zoey (Mexican-born Polish actress Alicja Bachleda) and hoodwink the locals for some cash.
Though most of the Americans encountered en route are easy targets for laffs, Tom and Veit are portrayed as equally naive and frequently stupid. There’s an underlying warmth to all the characters that prevents the movie from being a cheap-shot portrait of U.S. stereotypes.
Still, the script by Oliver Ziegenbalg (“1 1/2 Knights”) could have beneficially been much sharper on social/cultural comedy, whose few remaining traces are ditched when Zoey enters the picture, setting up some low-key sexual competition between the two guys. Story’s final twist reintroduces a political element, but the film seems overall not to want to get bogged down in anything remotely serious. As throwaway entertainment, it succeeds.
Blond, baby-faced Schweighoefer, himself born in East Germany, energizes the screen as a gung-ho young Ossi who’s finally realizing a personal dream, even though it’s sometimes far from what he imagined. Muecke, as the swarthier, quieter Veit, bonds very well — so much so that the two are already prepping another pic (not a sequel) together.