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Sundance Film Review: ‘Greener Grass’

In this absurdist satire of middle-class envy, Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe imagine a manicured community where jealous neighbors push politeness to an extreme.

Director:
Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe
With:
Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe

1 hour 42 minutes

What would it take to make you happy: A different house? A different wife? Or maybe an altogether different life? Before you go coveting your neighbor’s fill-in-the-blank, you owe it to yourself to watch “Greener Grass,” an odd and wonderfully upbeat absurdist take on the American dream from improv comedians turned independent filmmakers Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, who’ve imagined an upper-middle-class community where domestic bliss always seems to be just one lifestyle tweak away.

Just a sample of what that means: In the opening scene, a pair of soccer moms sit chatting on the sidelines of their sons’ match. “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t even notice. You have a new baby!” Lisa Wetbottom (Luebbe) notes appreciatively, to which her friend Jill Davies (DeBoer) beams with pride, revealing ultra-white teeth wired with braces (everyone in “Greener Grass” wears braces, because there’s always room for improvement). “Do you want her? She’s great,” Jill says, and cheerily proceeds to hand her baby over to Lisa — for keeps.

“Greener Grass” is that kind of movie, as if a movie quite like this has ever existed before. It’s a square peg in a sea of round holes, and the most pleasant surprise of an otherwise mostly predictable Sundance Film Festival, where DeBoer and Luebbe’s future cult favorite — a fate that seems all but guaranteed for this weird and wonderful comedy of manners — was counterintuitively tucked away in the Midnight section, and misleadingly represented by a close-up of two mouths (and two sets of braces) connected by a string of saliva. A word to the squeamish: That shot never appears in the film, although it’s pretty funny to imagine it once you’ve seen the scene, in which two husbands, dorkily dressed in gingham shirts and matching pastel shorts, mistakenly make out with one another’s wives at a backyard picnic.

So, why unveil this at Midnight? Apart from the off-screen murder of a yoga instructor and a few genre-movie elements — including its Samuel Nobles’ synthesizer score (which channels classic John Carpenter) and the presence of a peeper who can be heard heavy-breathing from the margins of some scenes — the tone of “Greener Grass” hews closer to the kind of squirrelly stoner offering you might find around 1 a.m. on Adult Swim than your typical late-night horror movie. Expanded from a 15-minute short film, it’s basically the best “Saturday Night Live” movie that “Saturday Night Live” never made, and if Lorne Michaels were half the talent scout we believe, he’d hire both DeBoer and Luebbe on the spot.

Cheerily competitive best friends Lisa and Jill live just down the street from one another in a manicured suburban community not so dissimilar from Stepford — with its pastel-pink golf carts and white-picket fences — only these housewives have minds of their own. It just so happens that their comforts are such that they don’t have much to worry about beyond deciding what’s for dinner and monitoring what their children are watching on TV: Kooky cooking programs are fine, but a show called “Kids With Knives” is absolutely off-limits, as it’s liable to wreak permanent damage on their impressionable young minds — which it does Jill’s older son Bob (Asher Miles Fallica) when he tunes in unsupervised one afternoon.

That’s the fault of Lisa’s husband, Dennis (Neil Casey, a curly-haired ex-“SNL” writer better known for his work on “Inside Amy Schumer”), who isn’t nearly as handsome as Jill’s spouse, Nick (Beck Bennett, whom you’ll likely recognize as Vladimir Putin on “SNL”). In nearly all departments, the Davies seem to have the edge — although family portraits aren’t the same since giving away baby Paige, née Madison. Heck, after switching the filtration system in their backyard pool, the water now tastes so good that Nick bottles it and brings some along to restaurants. He’s so pleased with the upgrade that it nearly makes up for the embarrassment that is his son Julian (Julian Hilliard), who shows zero aptitude for sports, and even less for music, until a change even more unpredictable than puberty solves that problem.

Drawing from their sketch work with the Upright Citizens Brigade, DeBoer and Luebbe have conceived a place of almost inexhaustible satire potential — where, in a refreshing break from the age of raunchy R-rated comedy, the jokes are certified 99% clean. “Greener Grass” doesn’t need to stoop low to undermine these well-to-do WASPs’ sense of propriety, finding more than enough material raising such questions as: Is it possible to be too polite to your neighbors? Can a well-behaved child ever be too obedient? And can one’s teeth ever be too straight?

Like a mid-century sitcom gone terribly awry, or the ultimate queering of Emily Post’s rules of etiquette, “Greener Grass” doesn’t tolerate rudeness, but finds endless inspiration in the ways well-meaning people go out of their way not to offend — as when homeroom teacher Miss Human (scene-stealer D’Arcy Carden of “The Good Place”) tries to accommodate Julian, post-transformation, or in the scene where Jill attempts to ask for her baby back, choosing her words carefully: “I don’t want to be a Native American giver…” Though the overall goal appears to be silliness, not social commentary, that particular gag is a clue to something deeper that the film can explore, painting an image of political correctness taken to an extreme.

The presence of a possible serial killer in their midst — followed by one character’s off-the-cuff decision to file for divorce — contributes to the slow unraveling of that facade, although “Greener Grass” is so consistently daffy that its unpredictable, outta-left-field situations alone would have been enough to keep us giggling for the length of a feature. In the end, presented as if filtered through a sunny Instagram setting, “Greener Grass” won’t exactly make you envious of the over-idealized lifestyle it skewers, and yet it’s such a delightful place to inhabit, you won’t want to leave when the credits roll.

Sundance Film Review: 'Greener Grass'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 29, 2019. Running time: 102 MIN.

Production: A Gulp Splash Prods., Vanishing Angle presentation, in association with 30West. (Int'l sales: 30West, Los Angeles.) Producer: Natalie Metzger. Executive producers: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Jeff Roberts, Matt Miller.

Crew: Directors, writers: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe. Camera (color, widescreen): Lowell A. Meyer. Editor: Taylor Gianotas. Music: Samuel Nobles.

With: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D'Arcy Carden.

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