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SXSW Review: ‘The Bounceback’

In what looks a lot like a studio comedy, but air-humps as only an indie can, rebound-themed raunch-a-thon “The Bounceback” sees director Bryan Poyser and co-scribes Steven Walters and David DeGrow Shotwell channeling such mid-’90s relationship pics as “Clerks” and “Swingers,” where the biggest laughs are triggered by recognition, rather than crossing the line of acceptability — though this untamed farce certainly does that, too, since it’s set against the actual Air Sex World Championships. While ratings trouble could pinch theatrical prospects, an MPAA scandal would surely boost demand among home viewers.

To set the tone, Cathy (Ashley Bell) and Stan (Michael Stahl-David) share a sex fantasy, climaxing at the same time but on opposite sides of the country. A credit-sequence photo gallery efficiently recaps the history of their broken relationship, which began in Austin, Texas, and ends with her in New York for medical school and him delivering pizzas in Los Angeles.

This isn’t the first of Poyser’s films to open with an extended act of self-gratification. Like 2004’s “Dear Pillow” (about a teenager who dabbles in writing pornographic stories), this more broadly appealing project feels daringly frank on the subject of sex. But as is frequently the case with the most saturnalian comedies, it’s actually quite conservative when it comes to allowing its characters to follow through on their uninhibited talk.

Set over the course of a single weekend, the film kicks into action when Stan spots a Facebook update announcing that Cathy is planning a trip to Austin. Booking a flight before he can talk himself out of it, Stan heads down as well, hoping to intercept her — an act of obsession worthy of Poyser’s second feature, 2010 stalker comedy “Lovers of Hate,” but rendered relatable by Stahl-David’s hang-dog demeanor.

Instead of bumping into Cathy at the airport as he’d hoped, Stan sees her feisty best friend, Kara (Sara Paxton, a well-cast blend of Emma Stone appeal and Natasha Lyonne attitude), who’s sore about breaking up with Stan’s less-than-romantic amigo, Jeff (the Whitest Kids U’Know comic Zach Cregger). And so the men and women go their separate ways for the weekend, setting up a promising dynamic wherein each of these four once-coupled friends can be tested by the opportunity for rebound sex with a fresh partner before deciding whether they want to patch things up.

While the approach lacks the stylistic innovation and insight into relationships of more sophisicated splits hits, two relatively minor creative breakthroughs help make things interesting: First, the script keeps Cathy and Stan apart for almost the entire film. But more importantly, it staggers all four characters’ feelings for their respective exes, so that getting back together is rarely on both parties’ minds at the same time, making it trickier than usual to anticipate exactly how the various pairings will pan out.

Add to that the novelty of the Air Sex World Championships — a competitive event conceived by Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League similar to air guitar, in which fully clothed contestants do the wild thing alone onstage in front of screaming fans — and “The Bounceback” seems unlikely to fade away unnoticed.

Upon arriving at the sty Jeff calls home, Stan stares wide-eyed and slack-jawed as his friend’s roommates immediately launch into an air-sex routine so extravagant, one can’t help but wonder whether the horn-dogs doing it have ever actually experienced the real thing. But that’s nothing compared with the “Tyrannosaurus Sex” number Jeff pulls later that night in public.

It’s no stretch at all to imagine this likable enough laffer taking on a life of its own as clever marketers encourage mini air-sex showdowns around screenings, in keeping with such past Drafthouse promotional stunts as sing-alongs and costume contests. Strangely enough, the film’s “actual” sex scenes are among its least interesting, though d.p. PJ Raval makes everything else look every bit as professional as a studio comedy, while capturing the flavor of Austin’s most popular bars, restaurants and hangouts.

The Bounceback

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight), March 10, 2013. Running time: 91 MIN.

A Preferred Content presentation of a Boomdozer/Barking Magpie production. (International sales: UTA/Preferred Content, Los Angeles.) Produced by Megan Gilbride, Trace Sheehan. Executive producers, Ross M. Dinerstein, Kevin Iwashina. Co-producers, Scott Meyers, David DeGrow Shotwell, Steven Walters.

Directed by Bryan Poyser. Screenplay, Steven Walters, David DeGrow Shotwell, Poyser. Camera (color), PJ Raval; editors, Don Swaynos, Poyser; music supervisor, Roanna Gillespie; production designer, Michael Bricker; art director, Madison Fisk; set decorator, Nazanin Shirazi; costume designer, Caroline Karlen; sound, Martin Pedersen; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Stanley Kastner; assistant director, Libby Lubbin; second unit director, Allen Ho; casting, Michael Nicolo.

With: Ashley Bell, Zach Cregger, Sara Paxton, Michael Stahl-David, Addison Timlin, Justin Arnold, Martin Allman.

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