Nutshells

Comedies keep pushing the end of male adolescence back a few years. Knocked Up moved it to the mid-twenties. The Hangover trilogy kicked it even further to the thirties. With Nutshells, Rob Carpenter has extended it to when grey hairs start to form. This microbudget dramedy has charming moments, but script and pacing problems prevent it from realizing its ambitions.

Nutshells focuses on the recently divorced Bill (Casey Manderson) as he stumbles through life as an emotionally stunted newspaper columnist. His place is a mess, and he has no idea how to treat people who are close to him: his friend Frank (Michael Brian), Frank’s wife Susan (Genevieve Fleming), and his ex-wife Sally (Kate Isaac). He doesn’t want kids, because kids represent change; his studied cool-guy misanthropy isn’t serving him as well as it did when he was younger, but he doesn’t know how to change.

“…his studied cool-guy misanthropy isn’t serving him as well as it did when he was younger, but he doesn’t know how to change.”

From the start, Nutshells suffers from some issues common to first features from writer/directors with acting backgrounds. Most scenes are set up as volleys of “witty” dialogue that go on forever, without any progression or sense of narrative economy. The first scene, for example, is a four-minute banter session between Bill and Frank where they sit at a table, drink coffee, and discuss the prospect of having kids. The second scene is a three-minute awkward post-coital conversation between Bill and Sally, who still sleep together sometimes despite their divorce. What happens? Well…she leaves his house and declines his offer of breakfast. That’s it. Scenes like this can play like gangbusters in live theatre, where the audience expects (even hopes for) the actors to keep bits going and launch into discursive musings. In film, they can be a death sentence. Judd Apatow’s later films catch flack for this kind of meandering, and Nutshells takes it a whole leap further.

Even beyond the circuitous dialogue, the tone and style of humor vary wildly in Nutshells. Most of the time, it’s trying to be a bemusing slice-of-life, but sometimes it slips into wink-wink absurdity or doesn’t seem to realize the implausibility of its situations. Bill’s friends knowingly throw a house party and invite a divorced couple—the joke is that this is uncomfortable. Bill’s therapist is unlicensed and doesn’t pay attention to him—the joke is that no therapist would ever do this and retain customers. Things like this keep happening, and the rules and expectations of the narrative world never coalesce (other than everyone’s constant chatter).

“…they all have capable comedic timing and can make even the most bizarre scenarios seem natural…”

It’s not all bad, though. One of my favorite things in movies is when talented actors take so-so material and inject it with life. This happens often in Nutshells. None of the performers is perfect, but they all have capable comedic timing and can make even the most bizarre, forced scenarios in Carpenter’s screenplay seem natural. Kate Isaac and Genevieve Fleming, in particular, had me chuckling. Nutshells isn’t a terrible time if you go in knowing that its successes will come in moments. Waiting for the funny is like sitting on the edge of the water at the beach and waiting for the waves to come touch your feet—you know something will happen eventually, even if it takes a while.

Towards the end, Nutshells becomes a lot better. There are surprising reversals of what we thought about certain side characters. Bill has something of an emotional breakthrough and starts to become the man that he needs to be. Scenes move at a quicker pace, and there were even some shots that I liked. However, the improvements came too little, too late for me to give Nutshells an honest recommendation. The film has a lot of solid ideas, but it needed better editors at every stage of the process.

Nutshells (2018) Written and directed by Rob Carpenter. With Casey Manderson, Kate Isaac, Jennifer Kaleta, Darren Matheson, Michael Brian, Genevieve Fleming.

4 out of 10 stars

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