Sundance 2018: 'An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn' Succeeds in Creating Maximum Discomfort
In the latest comedic oddity from director Jim Hosking, a tiny ray of hope slithers out of the otherwise impenetrable slime -- if you can hang on long enough for it.
Watching An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is like chewing a piece of steel wool for 90 minutes and then washing it down for 15 minutes with a pleasing red wine (or would white wine be more suitable with steel wool?). Designing his creation for maximum discomfort, director Jim Hosking delights in absurdist flourishes and awkward pauses. This is a film where one character might break into a 30 second coughing fit for no reason (it actually happens twice), or the camera might linger over the partially chewed food in someone's overflowing mouth.
The interesting thing about a movie like An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is that its intended audience will love all of these grotesqueries. In fact, it's the last 15 minutes of the film, which Hosking wraps up with a palatable little bow, fans of this curious sub-genre will find most jarring.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that this film almost defeated me. It was so abrasive and uninteresting that I, along with several dozen other disaffected souls, fled the theater midway through the screening. Days later, when a second screening was added for some unfathomable reason, I decided to try again. I don't enjoy leaving screenings, having done so only once in my career as a critic (only a sizeable chunk of money and the affections of Aisha Tyler could drag me back to Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse). My tenacity was almost rewarded; at least enough to warrant writing a review.
The minuscule plot involves a gloomy malcontent named Lulu Danger (Aubrey Plaza) leaving her weaselly husband (Emile Hirsch) in the hopes of re-kindling the romance with her old flame, Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson). It's not entirely clear what sort of entertainer Beverly is, but people flock from miles around to see him. Thankfully, Jemaine Clement (as 'Colin') tags along as Lulu's scruffy protector. Seeing this impressive list of comedy dynamos, you might think it possible for the film to coast along on their inherent talents. You would be sorely mistaken.
Your heart aches for these talented actors, who alternate between rigid confusion and infantile hysterics, sometimes within the same scene. The pauses (and pacing) are so long and intolerable that you keep waiting for the actors to ask, "Line?" Hirsch, in particular, struggles mightily, screaming his lines like a tone-deaf child at his kindergarten talent show. Though this was undoubtedly the direction he received from Hosking, it's small consolation for those forced to endure Hirsch's ear-splitting vocal assault.
The problems with An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn are legion, but here are just a few to get you started…
Nothing that anyone does even approximates human behavior. You don't anticipate realism from the guy who directed The Greasy Strangler (2016), but you don't expect the emotional equivalent of alien pods for two hours, either. There's nothing to grasp onto but the slippery rope of weirdness. While there's an unmistakable kinship to the ironic tastelessness of John Waters' work, Hosking's characters lack the same painful humanity that made Waters' unsavory heroes sympathetic.
In fact, there's nothing sympathetic, relatable, or even likeable about any of these characters, particularly Lulu. Whether she's stealing money from her hapless husband or screaming at Colin to buy her some tampons ("It was a pleasure to buy you tampons," Colin later concedes), Lulu remains a decidedly unpleasant and boring sort. Robinson is reduced to grunting as his only form of communication. Yes, the titular hero of the entire film communicates through a series of modulated grunts (and occasional farts). It's the stuff of sketch comedy; capable of carrying a few scenes before crashing into eye-rolling tedium.
After 90 minutes of waiting for an actual story and all the amenities that entails (plot, character development, a reason to give a damn, etc.), something peculiar happens. A tiny ray of hope slithers out of the impenetrable slime. Characters speak to one another in meaningful ways; conveying intentions, hopes, dreams, and all sorts of groovy stuff.
Of course, none of this emotional connection feels earned on the coattails of so much ridiculousness. Still, I found myself invested in these vulgar characters, particularly Colin, much more than I might have predicted. It left me puzzled and more than a little disturbed. Had this terrible film buried itself into my subconscious? Would I forever be haunted by Jemaine Clement's mouth stuffed with cheesy onion rings, or the menagerie of bad wigs, or a two-minute argument about the gender implications of the name Beverly? Had my cinematic horizons been expanded by learning to embrace a film that tried so hard to make me hate it?
This glimmer of hope came courtesy of Clement, who is immensely likeable in everything that he does. Otherwise, there's no reason to care about anything in this film, which is filled with bad people who do irritating things on purpose. An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is a stylistic exercise in unpleasantness. There's an audience that enjoys such torture, but Im not among their ranks.