Once It Finds Its Footing, ‘Joshy’ Turns Out to be a Pleasant Surprise

GameStop, Inc.

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There may be nothing more dispiriting than when a movie seems content to just rest within the confines of soft expectations, never daring to take the material anywhere beyond a generic framing. For the first half hour of writer-director Jeff Baena’s Joshy, I had the fear that this would be another disposable piece of mumblecore cinema, where a collection of excellent actors trap themselves in a middling movie full of talky scenes that go nowhere. If there’s a testament to sticking through with movies after a questionable start, Joshy makes the case, as it slowly finds its legs and becomes a surprisingly funny and thoughtful examination of friendship, relationships, and death all under the auspices of a party weekend getaway.

Perhaps I should’ve expected Joshy to come around and subvert my expectations considering it has one of the most shocking openings that I wasn’t quite prepared for. Josh (Thomas Middleditch) comes home from a day at work to his fiancé Rachel (Alison Brie). They discuss plans for his birthday and for dinner before he goes off to the gym. After his workout, Josh comes back to his apartment to find Rachel’s lifeless body in the doorway. She has committed suicide.

Four months later, Josh is still in mourning but the cabin in Ojai, California that he put down a deposit on for his bachelor party is still theirs for the weekend. Josh is soon joined there by his good friends Ari (Adam Pally), a married man who likes his marijuana; Adam (Alex Ross Perry), the uptight nerd whose ten-year relationship is on shaky ground; and Eric (Nick Kroll), Josh’s former neighbor who wants to party it up for the weekend. The friends have a simple mission for the weekend have fun with the aim of “keeping it light” for their grief-stricken friend.

In these early scenes, you can really just feel Jeff Baena and the actors trying to establish the characters and the dynamics between them. It’s a somewhat rocky start, but it does establish Adam as being ridiculously uptight and wanting to use the weekend to play amazingly intricate board games as the others have their minds towards drunken debauchery. Just when it starts to feel a bit stale, the quartet of friends go to the town’s lone bar and the film is injected with a bit of life through the addition of Eric’s friend Greg (Brett Gelman), who was surprisingly invited to join them for the weekend, and Jodi (Jenny Slate), a girl out partying with her friends who soon joins the gang for the night of heavy drinking and some drugs.

For all the drinking and drug use, there’s the dark cloud of what happened to Rachel and Josh seems to take refuge solely through drinking. Middleditch gives a remarkable performance considering how little his character actually speaks. You can just feel the pain in his expressions as his eyes scan the room before taking a generous sip of bourbon. As for the rest of the gang, they do their best to not mention the horrible events, though Greg being an outsider isn’t exactly keen on the situation and allows to operate as the one person in the group who can ask the questions that will fill in details for the audience. This part of the story reaches its crescendo when Josh is confronted by Rachel’s parents (played by Paul Reiser and Lisa Edelstein) in a scene that is equal parts horrific and emotionally devastating.

There are other character dynamics at play in the film’s final two-thirds that keep Joshy always interesting and sometimes quite funny. The internal tension with Ari’s growing infatuation with Jodi, and the relationship is presented in terms that seem genuine and emotionally honest. The same could be said of the tension between Eric and Adam, with the former always pushing the envelope with stripper, drugs, and prostitutes and the latter who wants a quiet weekend of introspection with his friend in pain. In very brief roles, Joe and Kris Swanberg arrive at the cabin after the first night of debauchery with their young son. It leads to blow up between him and Eric, one that, like much of the film, is both darkly comic and emotionally resonate.

It takes Joshy a little while to find its footing after a truly shocking opening scene, but once it does there’s a nice story about friendship in the toughest times, one that is earnest in its portrayal of escalating use of drinking and drug over the course of a lost weekend, but never goes into the realm of Hangover movies that clumsily glorified horrible binge drinking. Jeff Baena and his talented cast have crafted a film that goes to some dark places while keeping fairly light, but never at the expense of its emotional honesty or characters. Joshy turned out to be one of the most darkly pleasant surprises I’ve encountered at the movies this year.

Joshy
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

Toeing the line between dark comedy and emotional honesty, writer-director Jeff Baena’s Joshy proves to be an earnest surprise buoyed by a strong leading performance from Thomas Middleditch.

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