It’s a common knock on comedies that they “try too hard.”
But not comedies set in laid-back, chillin’ and slackin’, South by Southwestin’ Austin, Texas. Not since “Slacker.”
Just park your romantic comedy in “The People’s Republic of Austin,” where hipsters grow unruly hair, insist “It’s just patchoili , cling to vinyl like it’s IPO Apple stock and eagerly await the return of VHS, and the comic culture shock laughs will follow.
Theresa Bennett’s “Social Animals” is basically a star vehicle for the quirky charms of Noël Wells, of “Master of None” and the dead-cat indie comedy “Mr. Roosevelt.” It co-stars Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) and Southern comic Fortune Feimster. And while it throws a lot of Austin-iana at the wall, laughs and comic/romantic insights are hard to come by in a script that expects the “scene” and the “vibe” to do all the heavy lifting.
Characters rage at how precious the place is turning, “artisanal cupcake shops” driving up property values and driving out old businesses. One of those businesses is House of Wax, where Zoe presides. Yeah, she gives “Brazilians,” a noble profession on the bikini lines of the most hirsute city in the South.
Except nobody will get waxes with a more painless laser hair removal emporium just down the street. She’s broke, all alone and failing, and about to turn 30. “Let (30) fall on your like a warm blanket on a cold day” her pal (Carly Chaikin) advises. But her pal has “settled” for a dull, boorish fiance — a Republican in “The People’s Republic of Austin.”
“We look great…on paper.”
Not for Zoe.
Across the street, another business is failing. Vulcan Video was doomed before it opened, but its owner Paul (Radnor) likes lost causes. Like his marriage. He and Jane (Aya Cash) have kids, but no life. She’s stressed about supporting them all, and he’s whining about the lack of intimacy.
“Maybe you should have an affair,” she gripes.
“Who has time for that?”
That’s our set-up here, people peripherally interconnected (the newlywed played by Samira Wiley is the planet the others orbit), sort of thrown together as Jane takes up with a gigolo (!?) and sweet, romantic-at-heart Paul is hurled at Zoe, with whom he can wax nostalgic (Hah!) about mix CDs and classic films and the days when a video store clerk could have an impact on his customer’s lives. Bars? Not the best place for them to meet.
“That’s great, because I’m an enabler!”
Wells has an approachable pluck about her, but Radnor is such a bland big screen presence that they set off no sparks and never make us believe them as a couple, or root for them.
Bennett, who scripted “Petunia,” couldn’t find a laugh here if the Alamo Drafthouse depended on it. Characters are introduced with illustrated “favorite sexual position” profiles, and the plus-sized stand-up comic Feimster leads a felatio workshop involving most of the women in the cast, and cucumbers.
Jane’s profound insight, “It’s just so hard to be alone…especially when you’re with someone,” drives the action. But what transpires from a real world relationship in crisis is absurd on every level, and not funny on any.
MPAA Rating: R for strong and crude sexual content, language, and drug use
Credits:Written and directed by Theresa Bennett. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:30