Whenever someone pitches their film to me and includes the words “improvised dialogue” or any permutation of that statement, I immediately throw up an internal block. Why? Because I immediately think of a million unfunny or uninteresting mockumentaries, coupled with the occasional dour and painfully minimalistic “acting-friendly” drama. In other words, if you’re not Christopher Guest and you mention improvisation, I’m liable to silently judge you right then and there. I can’t help it, I’m that kind of prick.
When word got to me that the latest feature from Lynn Shelton was one co-written by her cast, in a type of improvisational manner, I became hesitant. Curiosity got the better of me when I saw that the cast consisted of Calvin Reeder, a filmmaker in his own right (his recent short “The Rambler” will make you lose your lunch in all the right ways) and Sean Nelson, previously known to me as the film editor of Seattle’s “The Stranger” and lead singer of one of my all-time favorite bands, Harvey Danger. My respect for Calvin and Sean, coupled with the “never heard a bad thing about her work” Lynn Shelton directing, made watching the film easier to swallow; Hell I couldn’t wait to watch it.
“My Effortless Brilliance” is the tale of Eric Lambert Jones (Sean Nelson), an author who has achieved a modicum of literary success that has allowed his ego to expand beyond his apartment’s ability to contain it. One evening Eric gets hungry, and calls his friend Dylan (Basil Harris) over (not so much to hang out, but moreso to deliver food to Eric). Dylan arrives, but informs Eric that he is an a*****e, and effectively ends their friendship.
Two years pass, and Eric finds himself in Western Washington, the expanded neighborhood, as it were, of his former friend Dylan. Eric decides to drop in on Dylan unannounced and, perhaps, rekindle the friendship. Of course, Dylan’s life is much different now, as our his choices of friends, particularly the creepy cougar hunter Jim (Calvin Reeder), and the two former friends find themselves working through their issues as only guys can: by drinking, arguing and eventually hunting for said cougar.
“My Effortless Brilliance” succeeds by having the simplest of framework to hang the performances on, and not deviating from that framework. Most improvised films don’t know where they are going and, most often, don’t know how to end. This film has a three-act structure, a discernible beginning, middle and end and… it’s refreshing. “My Effortless Brilliance” shows that you can be creative and revolutionary in your filmmaking approach without throwing out all the rules of simple drama.
As for the performances, I adored the fact that there were no huge pronouncements or obvious, spoken-out-loud catharsis. Like anyone in this situation, Eric and Dylan work through their problems without ever actually bringing them up (save a fleeting mention here or there). The forced civility, the “free pass” of a long friendship, being the only thing that makes such a resolution even possible in the first place (because Dylan seems rather content with his Eric-free life, but decorum dictates that he show some hospitality). Sean Nelson and Basil Harris make it easy to understand how these two could be friends in the first place and, ultimately, how they got to where they’re at now.
For those filmmakers who want to go a simpler, more improvisational route, this is the perfect film to check out, because this is the theory done right. It helps that the actors had interesting things to say, of course, as they keep you entertained regardless, but Lynn Shelton’s deft use of dramatic framework is what keeps it all together, and that’s the lesson to be learned. Know the rules before you break them!