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Film Review: ‘Awful Nice’

In “Awful Nice,” the (nearly) lost art of physical comedy makes a roaring resurgence, courtesy of two belligerent brothers who tussle their way through their father’s funeral, argue all the way to Branson, Mo., and break more than they fix during an ill-fated home-improvement project. Compulsively funny cut-ups Alex Rennie and James Pumphrey play siblings Dave and Jim Brouillette in what has become an indie-comedy subgenre unto itself: the bros-on-the-road movie. Hyper-obnoxious by design, Todd Sklar’s soph feature should tickle the tastes of cult auds and Funny or Die fans in limited release, while annoying pretty much everyone else.

The ultra-weird opening shot — in which responsible big brother Jim (Pumphrey) rouses Dave (Rennie), half-stoned, half-hungover and totally naked, from the tent where he’s been living — and most of the next eight minutes will look familiar to anyone who saw Sklar’s rowdy sibling-rivalry short, “’92 Skybox Alonso Mourning Rookie Card.” Made at a moment when the helmer expected the funding for “Awful Nice” to fall through, the short managed to cap the brothers’ spirit of one-upmanship with a poignant gesture of reconciliation.

The feature, by contrast, rips the relationship open and lets it fester, starting with the epically inappropriate fight at their dad’s wake, then following the pair back to their childhood home, which they plan to sell to split the inheritance. But the family’s Branson property is a total sty — an apt metaphor for their screwed-up childhoods, from which Jim somehow managed to make it to college, get married and start a family. Dave didn’t, apparently dedicating his life to a sort of feral eccentricity, as evidenced by his weird clothes and reliable tendency for instigating confrontation (an unpaid visit to a hotel buffet line is a standout).

It’s hard to pin down where “Awful Nice” falls on the reality spectrum until about halfway through, when Dave challenges a table full of tourists to a fight, landing the brothers in a police station operated by two ultra-unprofessional cops (Charlie Sanders and Josh Fadem). Their unorthodox interrogation techniques help to put the bizarre opening RIGHT? in perspective, suggesting that making people laugh takes priority over plot logic for Sklar and co-writer Rennie.

From “Rain Man” to last year’s “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” countless films have used the brotherly reunion formula to movingly sincere effect (the Duplass approach is clearly a big influence on Sklar’s style). But comedy is just as tough to pull off as sentimentality, and “Awful Nice” carves out all the touchy-feely stuff that makes Judd Apatow movies run two reels too long in favor of a jump-cut style that eliminates the fat and keeps the jokes coming.

It’s exhausting to experience Rennie in this compressed, full-assault form, but the man’s talent and comic timing are undeniable. He’s a whirlwind of unpredictable energy, whether body-slamming the hood of Jim’s car or coping with the effects of caffeine and dog-worming pills. Watching he and Pumphrey play off one another recalls the loony improvisational chemistry between “Step Brothers” co-stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, though Rennie adds pratfalls and other physical gags to the mix.

In the quest to shock and offend, modern comedy has forfeited silliness, but not Sklar, who encourages the kind of playful, bad-idea activities that brothers cook up when they’re together (a few too many of which are relegated to hard-to-follow split-screen montages). “I found dad’s old bowling ball,” Dave announces when he’s supposed to be cleaning. “Think it still works?”

The only reliable constant in their wild and crazy behavior is the fact that the brothers are bound to wind up fighting when things don’t go exactly their way. That’s where the other grown-ups come in, providing either responsibility (a strangely toupeed Christopher Meloni, as their dad’s lawyer) or a reason for more bad behavior (Brett Gelman as Branson’s unlikely Russian crime boss).

A team of four production designers pack each location with enough background jokes to reward repeat viewing.

Awful Nice

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 14, 2013. Running time: 93 MIN.

A Range Life Entertainment, Brothers K Prods. presentation and production. Produced by Michael Forstein, Elizabeth MacKenzie, Adam Paulsen, Todd Sklar, Maury Steinman, Brock Williams. Executive producers, Jason Krigsfeld, Jospeh Krigsfeld. Co-producer, Elizabeth Mackenzie.

Directed by Todd Sklar. Screenplay, Sklar, Alex Rennie. Camera (color), Adam Ginsberg; music, Mark Harrison; music supervisor, Joe Rudge; production designers, Michele Yu, Cindy Chao, Lanie Overton, Chelsea Turner; art director, Tricia Robertson; set decorators, Overton, Turner; costume designer, Mirren Gordon-Crozier; sound, Jesse “C-Nug” Brown; sound designer, Eric DiStefano; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Christopher Koch; special effects coordinator, Mike Strain Jr.; visual effects artist, Josh Johnson; stunt coordinators, Matthias Schmidt, Kerry Bourne Flood; assistant director, Jason Krigsfeld. 

With: Alex Rennie, James Pumphrey, Christopher Meloni, Brett Gelman, Keeley Hazell, Charlie Sanders, Josh Fadem, Laura Ramsey, Henry Zebrowski, Jon Gabrus, D.C. Pierson, Dominic Dierkes, Yakov Smirnoff.

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