This review was originally published on June 5, 2013 and referenced the original title of Teddy Bears; Review has been edited to reflect the title change…
“The Big Ask” is the debut black comedy from writer/director Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman, Beatty’s partner both in directing and in life. The script is loosely based on an event in their pre-marriage relationship. The film’s title comes from the nickname for the fuzzy-looking cactus that appears soft and cuddly but will stab you if you get too close.
You may think you have your life mapped out, but sometimes one fateful trip can change everything. Andrew (David Krumholtz) is having tremendous difficulty recovering from having watched his mother slowly die of cancer. He organizes a weeklong retreat in Joshua Tree, with his girlfriend (Melanie Lynskey, “Heavenly Creatures”) and two other couples, with whom he is close. On the first night, Andrew drops the bomb about his ulterior motive for the gathering. He is convinced the only way he can heal is to experience a “wave of love”. The catch is that this love wave means having sex with all of the female members of the group at once.
Everyone initially laughs off Andrew’s indecent proposal, but he continues to press the issue, not noticing or caring that he is making everyone increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually, the awkwardness morphs into annoyance followed by anger. But because of their history, his friends feel they owe it to Andrew to stick around and try to help him in other ways.
Though the plot of “The Big Ask” resembles a broad sitcom premise, the resulting film is anything but broad. If Hollywood had made this film, it would have starred Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson and it would be excruciating. “The Big Ask” proves that it is possible to make an artistically proficient film about anything, so long as you write from a truthful place.
A great script still needs capable actors to bring it to life. Beatty and Fishman absolutely chose well, getting wonderfully weighty performances from actors largely known for their work on light-hearted television shows. Gillian Jacobs (TVs “Community”) is heartbreaking as the friend who, outside of Andrew’s girlfriend, tries the hardest to understand where Andrew is coming from. Melanie Lynskey proved her amazing talent long ago, and has been squandering it on “Two and a Half Men,” so I’m glad people are finally giving her some meat to chew. The rest of the cast is equally fantastic and the six of them together are very believable as old friends. I guess you could say they have fremistry. Even squinty-eyed French Stewart (TV’s “Third Rock From the Sun”) pulls out some dramatic surprises.
Though there are funny moments in the film, the actors play it as straight as can be. The characters make most of the jokes themselves. Rarely does anything silly happen at the expense of a character. There is a lot of humor in every day life, even when things get dire or weird. There aren’t as many laughs as in a traditional comedy, but it makes the laughs you do get much more meaningful. Not many films with such an outrageous premise will resonate or stick with you the way that “The Big Ask” will. That’s because it isn’t about a man trying to sleep with his friends, so much as it’s about a broken man who is convinced he’s on the path to recovery, even as he continues to dig himself into a deeper hole. It is a beautiful portrait of how grief can erode relationships and turn people selfish and reckless in the name of sadness.
“The Big Ask” is obviously not the feel-good movie of the year, but it sure feels awesome to watch such a good movie. There’s more than one way to skin a sex comedy.