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 But life throws him a curveball when the neurotic and gorgeous Francesca (Morena Baccarin) comes along in the most outdated manic-pixie fashion imaginable.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

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.

Popular on Variety

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


    Warner Bros. Grabs Atresmedia, Bambú’s 'El verano que vivimos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN —    Warner Bros. Pictures Intl. has grabbed near-worldwide distribution rights to “El verano que vivimos,” a romantic melodrama directed by “Fariña” Carlos Sedes and co-produced with Atresmedia Cine, Bambú Producciones and La Claqueta. One of the most awaited local releases of next year, “El verano que vivimos” rolls from August for nine [...]


    Watch Trailer to San Sebastian’s ‘Patrick,’ Sold by The Match Factory (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN —  Sales house The Match Factory is launching exclusively via Variety the trailer of “Patrick,” Gonçalo Waddington’s debut feature, as the film world premieres in the Official Selection at the San Sebastian Festival. Screening in main competition, “Patrick” recounts the story of an eight-year old Portuguese boy, Mario, who is re-discovered years later [...]

  • Brad Pitt stars in ONCE UPON

    Quentin Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Gets Oct. 25 China Release

    Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is scheduled for a China release on Oct. 25, three months after its U.S. debut. The mainland opening will hit after the country’s National Day holiday in the first week of October, which this year marks a key and politically sensitive anniversary — the 70th year of [...]


    Filmax Acquires International on ‘The Curse of the Handsome Man’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Barcelona-based boutique studio Filmax has acquired international rights to Argentine producer-director Beda Docampo’s “The Curse of the Handsome Man,” produced by Ibón Cormenzana’s Arcadia Motion Pictures alongside Cados Producciones and Damned Besso –based in Spain—in co-production with Cecilia Díez’s Zarlek Producciones (“Medianeras”) in Argentina. The film is backed by Spanish public broadcaster [...]

  • La-mala-familia

    Javi Tasio Talks ECAM Incubator Title ‘La Mala Familia’

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Via their BRBR collective, filmmakers Nacho A. Villar and Luis Rojo have directed award winning music videos, and commercias. Now they’ll make the leap to features with “La Mala Familia,” a gritty urban drama set in the outskirts of Madrid. Variety spoke with the film’s producer, Javi Tasio, who developed this project at ECAM’s [...]

  • Charlie-Chaplin-and-Horse-Roy-Export-Co

    Carmen Chaplin to Direct ‘Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Director-producer-actress Carmen Chaplin is set to direct “Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World,” a theatrical documentary feature which will add a hardly-explored new facet to the creator of the Tramp, one of the most iconic cinema characters in popular consciousness, plumbing Chaplin’s Romani roots and heritage. Marking the first time that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content