A sort of “After Hours” update with a lot more drugs and time ellipses, “The Wave” throws Justin Long down a rabbit’s hole of sometimes hallucinatory, sometimes mortal peril when his button-down protagonist makes the mistake of celebrating a career breakthrough a little too adventurously. This surreal comedy from debuting feature director Gille Klabin and writer Carl W. Lucas offers a colorfully diverting ride that invokes the specter of everything from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
What it doesn’t quite have is the singularity of vision those and other movies had in putting their protagonists through some mind-expanding changes, whether induced psychedelically or supernaturally. This fever dream feels more derivative than distinctive, entertaining and eventful as it is. Still, it’s a well-cast, well-crafted stab at something offbeat that should find a modest but appreciative viewership in limited theatrical release (simultaneous with VOD launch) on Jan. 17.
Frank (Long) is a 30-ish drudge attorney at a corporation where his primary task seems to be the unappetizing one of finding ways to cheat claimants out of their insurance payouts. Eager to rise in the estimation of his tyrannical boss (Bill Sage), Frank is excited to have spied a loophole in one long-running case that could save the company millions — even if it shafts the family who filed the claim. Sharing this news with workplace BFF Jeff (Donald Faison) the day before he’ll announce it at a staff meeting, Frank is too cautious to let his pal finagle him into a night’s celebratory carousing. But once he gets home, the tedious bring-down of domestic life with nagging spouse Cheryl (Sarah Minnich) makes him change his mind.
The two men head to a dive club, which is not exactly hopping on a Tuesday night. Nonetheless, they meet hipsters Natalie (Katia Winter) and Theresa (Sheila Vand), who condescend to let them buy drinks, then take them along to a raucous house party. It is there that Frank does something even more uncharacteristically reckless: He and Theresa imbibe a mystery drug proffered by the equally mysterious Aeolus (Tommy Flanagan).
Told said substance will hit him “like a wave,” Frank wipes out … and wakes up alone the next morning in the trashed house, whose horrified real owners then arrive to call the police on the “intruder.” He flees, fast realizing his wallet has been stolen, all the worst-case scenarios already enacted upon his credit cards, etc. Jeff lost him at the party, and the two learn from an enraged Natalie that she lost Theresa there, too. So it appears Frank may be the victim of a roofie-ing and identity theft, as well as party to a possible kidnapping or worse. But the worst is that even 16 hours later, he can’t come down: The drug is still hurtling him through an unpredictable obstacle course of hallucinations both pleasant and paranoid, as well as jarring leaps backward and forward in time.
Its plot careening between the intricate and the arbitrary, “The Wave” holds out the possibility that it may not be heading anywhere in particular … until you realize it’s actually headed somewhere very familiar to anyone who read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” in secondary-school English class. The result is a somewhat disappointing windup to what had been an admirably bendy narrative. En route, Frank has various encounters in the real and not-so-real world, including with an unamused major-league drug dealer (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a sort of homeless guardian angel (Jon Kristian Moore), and an elusive, idealized Theresa. His big office meeting turns into a nightmare of distorted perception, with workmates turned grotesque by rotoscope-like visual effects.
There’s some vaguely philosophical patter about Frank’s trial by fire being part of the universe’s constant effort to forge harmony from chaos. But whatever navel-gazing “The Wave” intends is somewhat overwhelmed by the slick, black-comedy-lite execution, which keeps the film moving but doesn’t lend it much sense of hidden depths. In the end, it feels like a lightly lysergic update of those ’60s movies in which some Man in the Gray Flannel Suit got his square-peg mind blown — “The Swimmer” as surreal comedy rather than surreal tragedy.
Long is always watchable, though his primarily reactive character doesn’t really give the actor a lot of room for idiosyncrasy. Support turns are nicely handled if variably caricatured. The accomplished packaging is highlighted by Lana Wolverton’s adept editing and appropriately spectral original music contributions by Eldad Guetta and Kirk Spencer.