You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Ode to Joy’

Jason Winer’s consistently unfunny romantic comedy lacks energy, sexual chemistry and smarts. It might as well be called “Bored to Death.”

Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Melissa Rauch

Rated R  Running time: 97 MIN.

Contrary to popular belief that insists upon their demise, first-rate romantic comedies are still alive and well. Sadly, Jason Winer’s perplexing farce “Ode to Joy” — on the misadventures of a tedious male lead with a self-sabotaging biology that opposes happiness — makes it harder than ever to dispute the mourners of the supposedly vanished genre. Humorless to a paralyzing extent, this joyless effort (developed under the title “The Pursuit of Unhappiness”) illustrates how a bad-on-paper idea can turn into something cringe-inducing onscreen. It also reminds that pulling off a smart, intoxicating happily-ever-after tale with sexual chemistry, refined contemporary jokes and lovably quirky sidekicks (à la “The Big Sick” or “Crazy Rich Asians”) is much tougher than we often imagine.

Inspired by a true story featured on the “This American Life” podcast, the labored romp follows the Brooklyn librarian Charlie, played by a deliberately monotonous Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit”) sans an emotional range. (This is the kind of performance his character actually requires — not exactly fodder for something charming.) Suffering from cataplexy — a form of narcolepsy that causes him to collapse like a Harry Potter character hit by an immobilizing hex whenever he feels a rush of powerful emotions — Charlie spends his days bickering with his oddball co-workers without indulging in extremes and restraining his cheerful feelings. He does whatever it takes, from avoiding cute dogs to thinking sad thoughts in weddings (words like “Syria” come handy to him — yikes!) and reading depressing books to eager kids, in order to stay awake throughout his routine tasks. But life throws him a curveball when the neurotic and gorgeous Francesca (Morena Baccarin) comes along in the most outdated manic-pixie fashion imaginable.

Let it suffice to say that a sophisticated yet disgruntled woman climbing up on a library table, screaming and destroying a valuable first-edition book and a generous side of mansplaining is no one’s idea of a meet-cute. And yet, this painfully contrived scenario, imagined by screenwriter Max Werner, is how the duo hits it off, after Francesca’s no-good boyfriend breaks up with her. What follows is a long stretch of Charlie trying to hide the truth about his medical deficiency (who knows why), while audiences stare at the screen in boredom wondering what Francesca even sees in this pointedly unpleasant man who must go to great lengths to avoid feelings of love and intimacy.

Popular on Variety

Our disbelief only grows when Francesca falls victim to a distasteful ploy and starts dating Charlie’s goofy brother Cooper (an over-performative Jake Lacy, still better than the material), whose low-key misogyny and frequent use of the word “chick” (in lieu of “woman”) registers, but does not amuse in the slightest. There is also Melissa Rauch’s wide-eyed, absurdly frank Bethany (a character even more ludicrous than the comedian’s failed gymnast in “The Bronze”). Out of nowhere, she briefly becomes Charlie’s love interest and almost bedfellow. Hilarity doesn’t ensue when the two couples take a joint trip to a quaint bed and breakfast somewhere upstate. Although you might cackle in agony when Rauch picks up a cello and launches into a deliberately excruciating version of the Cranberries’ “Zombie.”

Mostly known for his behind-the-camera TV credits on shows like “Modern Family” and “1600 Penn,” Winer doesn’t bring much finesse into the generic visuals of “Ode to Joy.” In fairness to him, no amount of directorial elegance could have saved the artificial beats of a narrative that fails to create believable sexual tension between its “romantic” leads and amounts only to an utterly shallow showdown between brothers with long-standing scores to settle. Not to mention Charlie’s underdeveloped condition — a smarter script would have engaged with his deficiency in some deeper sense — and an afterthought of a storyline involving Jane Curtin in the role of Francesca’s aunt. (I challenge you to recall her function in the film after the credits roll.) The masterpiece that is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony deserved to lend its name to a much better film, one that at least bothered to pull at some emotional heartstrings.

Film Review: 'Ode to Joy'

Reviewed online, New York, Aug. 5, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: An IFC Films release and presentation of a Mosaic, Small Dog Picture Co. production, in association with This American Life. Producers: Mike Falbo, Jason Winer, Michael Lasker, Jimmy Miller, Ira Glass, Alissa Sharp, Pamela Thur. Executive producer: Josh Bearman, Nick Moceri, Max Werner, Joseph White.

Crew: Director: Jason Winer. Screenplay: Max Werner. Camera (color): David Robert Jones. Editor: Peter Teschner. Music: Jeremy Turner.

With: Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Melissa Rauch, Jake Lacy, Jane Curtin, Shannon Woodward, Adam Shapiro.

More Film

  • Kevin Costner Diane Lane

    Film News Roundup: Kevin Costner-Diane Lane Thriller 'Let Him Go' Set for August

    In today’s film news roundup, “Let Him Go” will open against “Bill and Ted Face the Music”; “Paradise Found” is in the works; “The Irishman” leads the way for AACTA International Awards nominations; and principal photography has wrapped on “Quiet in My Town.” RELEASE DATE Focus Features has set an Aug. 21 release date for [...]

  • Harriet Movie BTS

    How the Three-Part Arc Helped 'Harriet' Editor Wyatt Smith in the Editing Room

    It has taken us until 2019 to have a film about Araminta “Minty” Ross. Better known in history as Harriet Tubman. In Kasi Lemmons’ new film “Harriet,” the story breaks away from the typical slave narrative of an upward journey. Rather, we get a story that delves into the woman, her humanity and inspirational life. [...]

  • Awkwafina Jumanji Next Level Premiere

    'The Farewell's' Awkwafina on Her First Golden Globe Nomination, Female Director Snubs

    Awkwafina just might’ve had her best Monday ever. Shortly after 5 a.m., the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. announced that she’d earned her first Golden Globe nomination (as best actress in a motion picture – musical or comedy) for her performance in “The Farewell.” But she didn’t have a ton of time to celebrate, since she [...]

  • Bhumi Pednekar

    IFFAM-Variety's Asian Stars: Up Next Program is Helping Talent Cross Over

    Eight young stars accepted the “Asian Stars: Up Next” award on Tuesday intended to recognize and promote Asian on-screen talent who have established themselves in their home market but have the potential to cross borders onto the global stage. The awards are issued by the International Film Festival & Awards Macao and Variety, and were [...]

  • Mo'Nique

    Mo'Nique to Play 'Badass Black Woman' in New Film 'Mother Trucker'

    Mo’Nique has signed on for the lead role in the independent action-adventure “Mother Trucker.” The movie is written by J. Oyer Tomas, former HBO executive producer, and set during the Congressional impeachment hearings to remove President Richard Nixon from office. Nixon resigned in 1974. Mo’Nique will portray a mother, struggling with anger management issues, who [...]

  • Bellbird review

    Macao Film Review: 'Bellbird'

    Mild, mellow and as life-affirming as a soft fall of springtime New Zealand rain, Hamish Bennett’s charming if overfamiliar debut feature “Bellbird” — so named after a species of avian indigenous to the region, which Captain Cook reportedly described as having a song “like small bells, exquisitely tuned” — is a fondly bittersweet tribute to [...]

  • Wisdom Tooth

    Macao Film Review: 'Wisdom Tooth'

    Slippery and surprising, full of odd details and insights, and leaching significant visual and thematic texture from its unusual setting, Liang Ming’s “Wisdom Tooth” must be one of the year’s most remarkable debuts. Set in a depressed Chinese fishing town close to the Korean border during the first snow flurries of winter, the film is [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content