In “Love & Taxes,” the gifted actor and monologist Josh Kornbluth stands before us as one of the last specimens of purebred, old-school nerdus Americanus. On stage, with his bald hippie fringe, his big round pale gaping moon face, his eyes that don’t just plead but implore you to look into the abyss of his pain, Kornbluth suggests a deeply sensitive and perturbed goldfish. “Love & Taxes” is an adaptation of his feature-length monologue of the same name, which he developed at the Sundance Institute (his second monologue, “Haiku Tunnel,” was turned into a scathing big-screen office comedy that had the misfortunate to open the week of 9/11), and it’s an exuberant free-form comic-neurotic psychodrama. The movie takes Kornbluth’s stage show, recorded live, and intersperses it with dramatized scenes that are just deft and amusing enough to make you wish they were part of a larger indie production. Yet it all works together, as if Kornbluth was narrating and acting out the graphic novel of his life.
“Love & Taxes” presents him as a cuttingly witty and confessional stand-up memoirist-comedian who is also an emotionally tattered shambolic loser, a gifted man with faulty wiring. At the start of the movie, he says he’s going to explain to us how he came to know love through his understanding of income tax, and if that sounds like a joke, it is, in fact, exactly what happens. “Love & Taxes” is a movie that drags romance, kicking and screaming, into the real world of economic anxiety. It’s also a movie about the destruction a real nerd can cause.
Geeks, of course, have triumphed in the digital age, which is why there are so many more of them than there used to be. But around the time they became hip and computerized, they began to slide from movies into the pop-culture universe of television: “Freaks and Geeks,” “Seinfeld” (which basically divided the Woody Allen character into functional romantic Jerry and frantic compulsive George), “The Big Bang Theory,” Alex Karpovsky on “Girls.” To really seize our attention in a movie, a dweeb now has to do more than assert his ineffectuality with the same old quaint harmless brainiac mannerisms. He’s got to use his discombobulation to inflict serious damage, and that’s what makes Kornbluth a nerd for our time in “Love & Taxes.” His persona is that of an aging nice Jewish boy who’s halfway in touch with his inner sociopath.
He tells the story of what happened to him when he was working in San Francisco as the befuddled assistant for a white-bread tax attorney, who learned that Kornbluth himself hadn’t filed taxes for seven years. How, exactly, does this happen? Kornbluth takes us back to his childhood, where his divorced father was a Communist who acted out his hatred of the system by jumping subway turnstiles, preaching Marxist prattle, calling his son “little f—er” (which Kornbluth claims was a term of affection), and — yes — refusing to pay taxes. Those of a certain generation may recognize this sort of proudly shabby postwar leftist rebel as a type, but in “Love & Taxes” we also see — because Kornbluth teases us to see it — that his father was nuts: a man who refused to be a part of civil society. One of the worst aspects of the counterculture was the way that it could lend shreds of ideological dignity to what was basically abusive parenting.
“Love & Taxes” is, on some elemental level, the story of a man who, because his family was so messed up, never cemented his own connection to society — an alienation that he expresses by choosing the life of an economic “bohemian.” In the movie, Kornbluth gets lured out to Hollywood, where an unctuous studio executive (Harry Shearer) options his show “Red Diaper Baby,” and we think, “Great, he’s made it.” Then the whole thing falls apart, leaving Kornbluth with less than zero. He has to pay taxes after discovering that he now owes $42,000, a major chunk of it to Mo (the scene-stealing Helen Schumaker), the tough-love tax accountant who had promised to dig him out of his hole. (Her commission just digs the hole deeper.) “Love & Taxes” was written 15 years ago, when Kornbluth was struggling to get his career to levitate, but it may speak to moviegoers even more today, when slipping through the cracks is becoming the horrible new normal.
Kornbluth falls in love with Sara (Sarah Overman), a self-described “groupie” for his stage shows who’s just as off-kilter as he is (she has an OCD driving issue about never making left turns). But that doesn’t mean she’s a pushover. When she gets pregnant and insists that Josh man up when it comes to his finances, “Love & Taxes” turns into that unlikely thing: a fine-print financial romantic comedy. The movie is about how Kornbluth, at close to 40, casts off the shackles of his past to embrace the metaphysics of what money really is: the spine of stability and connection.
It was Spalding Gray, more than anyone, who turned the feature-length monologue into a frowsy new form of autobiographical theater, and Kornbluth, highly influenced by Gray, absorbed his greatest lesson: stick perilously close to the truth of your own story. Watching “Love & Taxes,” you feel as if you’re witnessing a life presented without much filter. It’s Kornbluth’s willingness to revel in what a screw-up he is that carries you along. You want him to come out of it, but at the same time there’s something liberating about seeing a geek take such a rocky journey through the siren song of his own self-destruction. He’s like a Spalding Gray for the age of things coming apart.