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 But life throws him a curveball when the neurotic and gorgeous Francesca (Morena Baccarin) comes along in the most outdated manic-pixie fashion imaginable.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.
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.