Nathan and David Zellner are kings of a certain brand of short film comedy. Popular at the Sundance Film Festival and beyond, their films (in which the brothers often also act) thrive on left-field tension, awkward communication and revelations in unexpected places. Their Redemptitude, despite its gratuitous blasphemy, does manage to communicate something profound about the selfish conditions we create around forgiveness. A far less polished film, Who Is On First?, is a deadly simple but hilarious deconstruction of the classic comedy routine. The film succeeds because it commits so completely to renegotiating the humour of the original, while remembering to include unique “turns” at key moments.
Concise storytelling is a virtue in any short film, but particularly so with the Zellner brothers’ work, because the oddball characters and situations they create would likely grow tiresome if given the feature length treatment. This is frustratingly true of Goliath, an 80-minute comedy edited and produced by Nathan and written and directed by David. A story about a man who suffers a series of losses, Goliath begins with a spark of energy, but is content to move slowly and drearily thereafter. An early scene in which the character leaves a cathartic message on his estranged wife’s voice mail is serviceably funny, and it does introduce us to the character’s predicament. Yet the whole bit feels lifted from other “middle class male malaise” films, especially Doug Liman’s Swingers, which famously features a superior (and very similar) answering machine scene.
In quick succession, the now-single central character is demoted at work, loses a cat named Goliath, and learns that a sex offender lives nearby. These are the events that drive the plot. While an intelligent comedy could be built around this material, the brothers choose to stretch many scenes to an unnecessary length and/or highlight unsubstantial elements of the story. The result of this approach is that a scene of a divorce paper signing plays like one of the longer scenes from The Brown Bunny. The man and his wife sign papers, and this action is covered from one camera setup, in a single shot that runs several minutes in an unbroken take, despite the fact that it reaches and blows past its content curve within half a minute.
Yes, the film’s observational perspective of this mundane activity has a quirky appeal. However, as these two are seasoned filmmakers, there is an added frustration for the viewer who senses their insular self-satisfaction in the aesthetic of such scenes. One does begin to question whether this is simply the filmmakers’ method of reaching a feature length running time.
There are aspects of the film that work brilliantly, and almost all of these are nonverbal or less obviously scripted than the dull parts. David’s body language is much like that of a cat. His desperate search for the cat has some emotional resonance because he seems physically similar to the lost pet. Additionally, the film develops his attempt to draw the cat home with the sound of an electric can opener from a funny sight gag into an unexpectedly poignant piece of action. The best section of purely visual storytelling related to the search for Goliath is the painstaking process through which he designs the poster announcing that his cat is lost. Prior to seeing this film, I didn’t think it was possible for a series of fonts to stir laughter, but leave it to the Zellner brothers to prove me wrong.
Although some of the scenes at the character’s anonymous workplace are, like the phone scene, too similar to other recent comedies (in this case, Office Space ), there are moments of comic inspiration there, as well. Following a brief but effective scene with Wiley Wiggins (mostly absent from the screen since his work with Richard Linklater), we join the protagonist at his new, lower rung of the office hierarchy. His bawdy co-workers, who wear blue jumpsuits, goof off in the break room. We watch the men wrestle, hear snippets of their (mostly dirty) jokes and stories, and later we are treated to an impromptu beat-box/break-dance performance. The observational style in these sequences is much more successful than the tedious divorce paper scene in the way it conveys the filmmakers’ perspective about the humor of everyday life.
The lost cat plot concludes by connecting to a subplot about a sex offender. While the film more or less acknowledges that the link between these two situations is slim at best, it also fails to motivate the enormous leap the main character makes in avenging the loss of his cat. His treatment of the sex offender (in a lashing out that echoes Todd Field’s infinitely superior Little Children ) seals the audience’s dislike for the main character. An epilogue suggests he has accepted the loss of Goliath and adopted a new kitten, but his enraged, violent behavior in the film’s conclusion makes us fear for the animal.
On DVD, Goliath is somewhat improved through peculiar special features that bear the trademark Zellner humor. The audio commentary features Charles Bryant, a friend of the filmmakers who appears in the film as a loudmouthed coworker. Many of his stories on the commentary track have nothing to do with what is on screen, but they are entertaining in a similar manner to the banter in the film. That the filmmakers devote so much of their shared commentary to his musings suggests that they realize their film could not top his off-the-cuff sense of humor. This acknowledgment raises questions about why they did not take a cue from fellow Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater (Slacker) and embrace the comedy and drama of real folks more fully throughout the actual film.
The DVD also offers a short documentary about Carlos Aguirre, the break-dancing man from the break room scenes. At first, the documentary seems like an attempt to tell his story in a relatively straightforward fashion, but little by little, absurd details creep into the picture and the humor builds. Aguirre might not be fully in on the joke, but he is clearly participating in the comic tone. This short piece becomes an instructional video for his break-dancing moves and taken as a whole, is much more entertaining than the feature film.
Finally, a filmmaker Q & A seems to pull off a sly trick that never reveals its hand. Throughout the piece, audience applause drops in and out of the soundtrack. The seemingly arbitrary placement of the applause causes the viewer to wonder whether the filmmakers have placed much of it over the natural sound, somewhat like a laugh track. If that is the case, then the Zellner brothers have turned another self-congratulatory Q & A session into an uproarious satire on the self-congratulatory nature of the experience.
When viewed this way, the Q & A is by far the funniest thing on the DVD. I might be sensing something that isn’t there, but it is to the filmmakers’ credit that I think they would be capable of such cunning comic storytelling. And if they’ve done nothing artificial to the track and the audience that night happened to have the most inappropriate timing for applause, then the video still inspires laughter. It is just the kind of small, weird detail that the Zellner brothers have made a career of exploring through short films. Here’s hoping Goliath doesn’t signal their abandonment of the format.