“Mr. Roosevelt” is the debut film by writer-director Noël Wells, a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic. It also features Wells in the lead role, as a Texas native who decamped for Los Angeles to become a comic, only to make an abrupt return to attend a cat funeral at the home of her ex-boyfriend, and perhaps take stock of the shambling mess she’s made of her life amidst Austin’s remaining pockets of weirdness. If you’re already starting to roll your eyes, stop: This riotously endearing comedy is substantially funnier, sharper, and more peculiar than that premise is bound to make it sound. While its knowing touch for the rhythms of Austin life make it a perfect fit for SXSW, the film has potential to travel much further, and announces Wells as a behind-the-camera talent worth watching.
A veteran of L.A.’s improv scene, Wells had a single-season run on “Saturday Night Live” before landing her recent role on “Master of None,” and the former experience certainly seems to inform “Mr. Roosevelt’s” opening scene, as Wells’ fictional counterpart Emily soldiers through a failed audition for a sketch-comedy show. (Kristen Wiig is among Emily’s celebrity impressions, though it’s her take on Holly Hunter haggling at a yard sale that really should have gotten her a callback.)
All she has to show for her time in Hollywood is one viral video that she “wasn’t able to monetize”; she’s barely making ends meet as a promotional video editor; and the improv comedy dating pool is proving somewhat suboptimal. So when she receives a call from her ex, Eric (Nick Thune), with news that their once-shared cat is sick, she doesn’t hesitate to hop on a plane to Texas with little but the clothes on her back.
Back home, she learns that the cat has already died, and Eric – whom she had just assumed would let her stay at his place – is happily cohabiting with his new, perfectly poised girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower), to whom Emily takes an immediate dislike. After all, she’s completely redecorated the place, relegating all of Emily’s leftover possessions to a shed out back. Pleading poverty, however, Emily gets the couple to put her up for a few days.
Although she’s only been gone for two years, Emily finds her former home city has been gentrified just as strikingly as her former home. Her favorite dingy coffee shop has been boarded up, and the new one nearby is a modernist maze of antiseptic steel. Eric has embraced a thoroughly L.A. set of voluntary dietary restrictions, and Celeste lists her occupation as “entrepreneur.” The two take Emily out to the kind of restaurant that actually requires nicer attire than t-shirts and jeans, and it isn’t long before she has a tableside meltdown.
Quickly coming to Emily’s rescue is a firecracker waitress-musician named Jen (Daniella Pineda), who recognizes her from her fleeting bout of YouTube stardom. After employing some tough love methods to staunch her panic attacks, Jen becomes Emily’s new best friend literally overnight, and ferries her around from overcrowded artist co-ops to topless Greenbelt picnics and musical house parties. Meanwhile, Celeste mounts an ever-escalating Cold War with her predecessor, and Eric and Emily spend enough time together to risk rekindling their old flame.
Nothing here, from the premise to the plotting to the basic tone, is particularly novel, but the entire affair has a distinctive personality. Wells has a clear gift for physical comedy, and as a director, she tends to underplay her funniest bits in a way that gives the film an engaging, lackadaisical flow, rather than fragmenting into a series of sketches. That distinctiveness extends to her character too – the hapless twentysomething woman-child has become almost as well-worn a type as its male equivalent, but Emily feels like an original creation within those broad parameters.
“Mr. Roosevelt” does occasionally reveal a few first-time filmmaker kinks, and in the later-going Wells forces closure on some narrative arcs that could have just as well stayed open-ended. But never does the film’s comic energy wane, and the supporting cast is highlighted by Lower, Pineda, and a scene-stealing turn from Andre Hyland, whose puckish stoner may be too laid-back even for Austin.