- The Boy Downstairs (dir. Sophie Brooks)
The romantic comedy struggles a bit with virginity. Not the, like totally gross, act of losing it but the chronicle of first love and loss, the love you once felt with every inch of your bones and is now extinguished while time moves the hell on. For these reasons exs never become real characters in romantic comedies, they're flavorless duds that leave us confused as to how the hell our likable protagonist could have made such an unbecoming move. Andy Sandberg is great at playing them. In Sophie Brooks' debut feature, she manages to swing Zosia Mamet ("Shoshanna" on Lena Dunham's Girls, also known for solid side roles in Mad Men and Todd Solondz's latest, Wiener-Dog) for her debut leading role in order to explore just that territory. Mamet plays Diana, who, as it happens, is a writer and, as it happens, is moving into a new apartment upstairs from her ex-boyfriend, Ben (Matthew Shear, Mistress America). Will sparks fly? Will these two characters just get along like adults who are occasionally annoyed by all the hard partying up or downstairs? Or will they realize they've been in love all along, it was true love, what happened, and something that must be expressed again?
The Boy Downstairs, initially, plays coy at the can-boys-and-girls be-friends game---Diana tries to diligently to maintain amiable relations with her new neighbor. Mamet is written to feel awkward about things and she performs superbly: the way she edges around saying a thing is a masterful and naturalistic performed, well honed from her years as the awkward-but-slowly accomplished friend on Girls. Diana and Ben are entertaining new flings: Diana with a Seth Rogan-sized stick of awkward lard named Marcus (Jeff Ward) and Ben is engaging in in monogamous relations with an annoying woman named Shannon (Deborah Offner). We know that Shannon is annoying because she takes an instant dislike to Diana, knocking on her door, unprompted, to tell 'er to back off. It's almost like Shannon's seen the end of the movie before we have! Packages are suspiciously misdelivered, Marcus is given the curb shortly after mumbling through lunch with Diana's dad (a cranky Arliss Howard, still recovering from being yelled at by Lee Ermey thirty years ago). Even more serendipitous is a slip on the ol' deadly ice, conveniently right outside Ben's window. 'Nough said.
Will sparks fly? Will these two characters just get along like adults?
The movie's most recognizable faces, Mamet and Shear, play versions of their most recognizable characters. Mamet's Diana awkwardly carries her privilege, like in Girls, descended from some British people who must have that vaguely-defined old people money. Early in the movie and between expensive apartments, she describes herself as "basically homeless." Oh, Shosh. For some reason, Brooks chooses to don her in artist-at-work overalls instead of the latest fashions at J. Crew and has her stare at the glowingly blank screen of the novel or whatever that she cannot finish until her heart rediscovers true love, I think. Shear, similarly, fumbles around having two women monogamously desiring his body. He will wait for you to kiss him and then chastise you for not taking off your pants.
The Boy Downstairs' most moving moments involve neither of them: the best friend, Meg (Sarah Ramos), is driven to tears when she realizes, while late-night yachting on the nearby Hudson, that the fellow she's been congruently sleeping with has no interest in seeing her as his wife or whatnot. It's tender, really, the morals of the dead romantic comedy forced to contemplate contemporary life, a place where institutions like marriage have lost all claims to ultimate meaning. When they first hooked up, donning a speedo, he asked her if she like Radiohead. She invited him to kick-on the stereo, have you never gotten jiggy to "Paranoid Android"? "Oh, no," he says, "I was just asking."
Fucking loved that.
But lets get to that apartment. The challenge of needing to fit an entire film crew, out-of-shot, is still unable to pass realist muster in everyone's romantic comedy capital. They're pretty much mansions on Madison ave. Which isn't that much of an obstacle, in the world of things; Dev Shah's pad in Aziz Ansari's Master of None was pretty much a palace and people loved the hell out of that show because of how much realist attention it paid, instead, to issues like racism, rape culture, et. all. But The Boy Downstairs shrugs it shoulders at these trends in the contemporary "New York" romantic comedy: it is not 'about' abortion (Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child), it is not 'about' suicide or depression (Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins), it is not 'about' bisexuality (Desiree Akhavan's Appropriate Behavior). The Boy Downstairs make clear that it is interested, instead, in revisiting an old tale : "Making the oft-told girl-meets-boy story new again," Liza Domnitz, the movie's programmer at Tribeca, writes with too many hyphens. In the press kit, Brooks confesses her love for When Harry Met Sally... (1989) as a key influence. So, you get it, they can't just be friends.
The Boy Downstairs is playing the Tribeca Film Festival: get tickets here
Andrew Karpan has had two women desire him simultaneously. He slept with both of them but didn't make a big deal out of it. Follow him on Twitter.