This Awful House, by Josh Long
Awful Nice is a comedy about two brothers who are suddenly brought back into each other’s lives when their father passes away. It isn’t a new concept; the “dysfunctional family brought together in a major life moment” is, by this point, a cliché. Even the story this time around isn’t particularly engaging. Yet somehow, director Todd Sklar (no relation to friends of BP Jason and Randy Sklar) creates a surprisingly watchable film, with a weird energy that makes it unpredictable and exciting. For a typical family-issues comedy, it’s pleasantly atypical.
Perhaps the primary reason it’s so enjoyable is the lovable mess these two brothers turn out to be. Dave is a compulsive liar and ne’er do well who dresses like a thrift store mannequin. His brother Jim seems to have it together on the surface, and serves as a foil to Dave’s antics. But it becomes obvious that he’s just as much of a problem, in different ways. After their father’s death, they learn that he’s left them the family lake house in Branson, Missouri, and decide to head down to Branson to sell it. Only it’s in such a sorry state that they’ll hardly make a dime off of it. Dave suggests that they undertake the project of fixing the house and Jim begrudgingly agrees.
The bulk of the film surrounds their renovation of the house, but that’s not really what the film’s about. Honestly, it seems like very little renovation actually happens. It’s more about the way that they fight, bicker, and undermine each other as only brothers can. Played by relative newcomers James Pumphrey and Alex Rennie, their dynamic is fun to watch due to some great comedic charisma. Rennie in particular plays Dave just outlandish enough to be believable as an irresponsible little brother.
The film staggers a little early on, when it hasn’t yet clearly define its world. Henry Zebrowski, who’s a very funny actor, shows up in an early performance that seems unnatural and overplayed. This kind of world becomes more the norm by the last third of the film, but early on there are several moments like this that seem wrong. When Christopher Meloni first appears as a “business associate” of the late father, his obvious wig, ridiculous accent and sunglasses worn inside or out make him look like a cartoon who wandered accidentally into the wrong film. By the end it becomes more normal, but it does seem to take too long before it’s established that the film’s world is populated by these types of characters.
Where the film really shines is in its approach to physical comedy. I’m a huge fan of well-done physical comedy, and there’s lots of it in Awful Nice. There are regular knock-down drag-out fist fights between the brothers (one immediately following the funeral), there’s some good old destruction surrounding the “repairs” of the house, lots of great moments where I laughed out loud, sitting alone in my living room. When it’s on the right track, this movie knows how to play it to the rafters without getting into American Pie territory, which is a solid accomplishment.
It doesn’t skimp on the drama either. Jim and Dave clearly have stuff to work out, and they work it out in a believable “guy” way. The filmmaker recognizes the pacing that needs to come with exploring relationship issues. It doesn’t jump to confessionals and deep heartfelt conversations unless it’s at an appropriate time. You don’t expect that you’d sympathize with a character who we meet (in the film’s first shot) naked and face down in a wigwam somewhere in South Dakota. And yet the movie naturally gets to a point where we really get to the bottom of Dave’s acting out.
While it falters here and there, Awful Nice is a lot of fun, made by a filmmaker who flexes the talents of both character development and physical comedy (sometimes an unlikely pair). Also thrown into the mix are some great cameos that will please comedy fans – Brett Gelman, Charlie Sanders, and friend of BP Josh Fadem all show up for hilarious turns as weird denizens of Branson. Definitely one to check out for fans of good comedy.