Boldly going where few first-time (or however–many-time) directors dare, actor-turned-filmmaker Mo McRae (“Sons of Anarchy,” “The First Purge”) fashions a high-wire juggling act of a debut, in which half the breathless, uneasy entertainment value comes from wondering when it will all come tumbling down. That it eventually does, therefore — in a final act that overworks some unnecessarily soapy twists — feels slightly inevitable. But it can’t undo the sly, stylish first impression McRae makes: Ironically, considering it revolves around a kidnapping, this is a film that takes no prisoners.
The provocative, intersectional dynamics of race, class and sex are announced elegantly, as DP John Rosario’s sinuous camera delivers a cleverly choreographed 17–minute one-shot opening. Introducing not only the main characters, but their pointedly affluent environment and the see-sawing internal power-play of their relationship, this terrific scene plays like “Malcolm and Marie” given a sense of humor and a social conscience, as James (Y’lan Noel) and Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) half-watch the evening news on their enormous widescreen TV. A report of an “officer-involved shooting” grabs their attention — not so much the story itself, as the fact that the white officer who has just killed an apparently unarmed kid, is their next-door neighbor, Brian (Justin Hartley).
Vanessa is appalled and immediately antsy to somehow take a stand. James, a lawyer who prides himself on his delicate negotiation skills, initially, and rather patronizingly, counsels patience until more of the facts are known. But as the two get drunker (the unbroken take is a terrific showcase for Noel and Coleman’s excellent performances, not least because they have to negotiate their increasingly brandy-based bravado in real time), Vanessa’s insistence that they “do something” proves persuasive. They pad around their luxurious house in their silken pajama sets, egging each other on to higher pitches of justified moral outrage, when the skewering wit of McRae and Sarah Kelly Kaplan’s switchback-heavy screenplay kicks in. They triumphantly decide that the “something” they will do is … write a strongly worded Facebook post. Cue some discussion over which Martin Luther King Jr. quote to open with.
It’s only the first of several reversals contained in this richly theatrical prologue, that is set to riffling, restless improv jazz of David Sardy’s score. Even more thornily, a gun that might as well have Chekhov’s name engraved on it is introduced and a weird role-play ensues during which James’ alpha-male posturing explicitly turns Vanessa on. When the scene finally cuts to the next day and they both prepare for work — in a crisply edited montage of closeups that feels like it’s slapping the hangover of the long-take away — it seems like the whole previous night might be the “lot of nothing” to which the title refers. Maybe they are just this shallow: another couple of complacent keyboard warriors whose activism is all talk, who are only truly dangerous in fantasy and whose moneyed lifestyle insulates them from the messier manifestations of social injustice.
But then, after a workday filled with sharply observed racist and sexist micro-aggressions, Vanessa has a confrontation with Brian that escalates until she and a reluctant James end up marching him at gunpoint into their garage and taping him to a chair. Which proves awkward when their dinner guests — James’ dope-smoking, militant brother Jamal (Shamier Anderson) and his pregnant, vegan, sage-burning, crystal-touting girlfriend Candy (Lex Scott Davis) — show up.
Status, in this keyed-up world, as often in our own, is defined by who you get to punch down on. Brian is resentful of James’ wealth, but his whiteness and maleness come with their own built-in privileges. James is on the receiving end of his fair share of coded racism (there’s a recurring refrain of white guys calling him “brother” and telling him he’s “one of the good ones”) but even he can casually cut across his female Asian co-worker with a swift, oblivious “Hold that thought, Linda.” Vanessa, as a Black woman (who even has her blackness questioned in a colorist slur from Brian) has fewer places for her punches to land, except maybe on Candy, whom she can despise on snobby, class-based grounds.
And so round and round it goes. The cleverness of McRae’s film is in the acidic outlining of all these clashing hierarchies and -isms, which lets no one off the hook and only dissipates in a final act that layers in infidelity, infertility, an oddly tacky dream sequence and a highly contrived rush-to-the-hospital. It all seems suddenly taken from the “Days of Our Lives” school of thinking whereby instead of just letting the characters live in their own weirdness, all behavior needs some sort of backstory justification, and all backstory needs to be revelation.
Still, even if the onyx-dark humor and sardonic formal control go MIA eventually, “A Lot of Nothing” is really quite something. And it marks a spikily impressive arrival for McRae who, like in one early sequence when a whole conversation plays out in the reflection of a glossy living-room table, can be both insightful and playful, all while holding up to our messed-up moment the blackest of black mirrors.