The holiday season seems like the perfect time for “The Messiest Dramedy of the Year” to show its face. That’s what “After Class” is, a movie that grabs at a lot of themes, subtexts and characters and doesn’t really wrestle any of them into shape or into submission.
It’s still a fun mess to watch, and a fine showcase for Justin Long, who plays the harried and harrassed “adjuct professor” of writing whose smarts and sensisity collide with his arrested development and quarrelsome, noisy New York Jewish family.
We see the “trigger” moment when it happens. We don’t have to know this film was first titled “Safe Spaces,” before Adam Carolla ruined that phrase forever with his recent documentary.
Josh is engaging with his college writing students, bantering, treating them as adults and equals. A young woman has written a short story based on real-life experience that the class has attacked. Josh probes to find out what interesting details she left out of her account of a bad date. We don’t need to see the class’s mass-exchange of side-eyes to know what he doesn’t. He’s crossing a line.
He gets what he’s after, entirely too enthusiastically — creepily. But it’s all good. “We’re WRITERS. We get to turn these embarrassing, painful things into art! Write that HURTS!”
Thus begin his endless meetings with the college dean and (perhaps) representative. It starts with “You’re new here” and veers into “Some of these students can be very sensitive” and meeting by meeting, it’s all downhill from there.
Not a good time for Josh. He’s not making ends meet, his podcasting pest of a sister Jackie (Kate Berlant) pesters her way into his apartment, which he shares with a sexy Italian grad student he met in Florence (Silvia Morigi).
And his grandmother (Lynn Cohen, of “Feast of the Seven Fishes”) is dying. That’s got the whole family on edge.
Mom (Fran Drescher) is at her wit’s end, ready to divvy up Grandma’s furniture and possesions, even though she’s in the hospital and “better.” Her ex-husband, their dad (Richard Schiff) has remarried, won’t visit this woman who was “like your own mother.” Jackie isn’t on speaking terms with him.
Brother David (Michael Godere) is squeezing bedside vigils in between business meetings and his suburban family.
They all get along, after a fashion. But they bait each other endlessly. Every discussion turns load, with a lot of people shouting at once.
And there’s this professional crisis that Josh can’t charm or good-intentions he way out of.
Writer-director Daniel Schechter did the kidnapping Jennifer Aniston farce “”Life of Crime,” and if anything, he’s taken on more items to juggle here. Too many more.
But here’s what I liked. He forces Josh to explain his predicament to the Italian, who doesn’t “get” it because he didn’t have sex with a student or do anything remotely that offensive.
“You’re European, it’s different over there!”
Schechter may park Josh in the middle of the “triggered” era and its “cancel culture.” He may write and cast some of the same shrill stereotypes of today’s easily-offended college student as the documentary “No Safe Spaces.” The kids here are mouthy, belligerent, self-absorbed and self-righteous.
The little darlings — gay or straight, sometimes black, often female — are perpetually outraged and quick to cross lines they themselves would flip out if anyone but themselves crossed them.
“Thank you so much. But we don’t need your hashtag right now.” She’d say “OK, Boomer,” if she was talking to a baby boomer.
Josh’s writing class might be interrupted by a student whipping out a cell phone to video him as the student sets out to provoke a fight. Josh’s writing seminar has assorted outraged young women of color exploding with accusations of sexism, racism and homophobia, and patting themselves on their backs for “calling you out” when their chief beef is “I am sicking of f—–g straight white men!”
Josh, an arrested development case at 38, is shocked that “college wasn’t like this when I went.” But he’s just an earlier part of the slide down the slippery slope that created them. We can see this extended childhood even in his own parents. And the whole slope is even clearer when we meet the very young son of his dad’s second-marriage . The kid is rude, impatient, defiant and out of control.
Decades of “treat your kids like adults” parenting has produced clingy, abrasive offspring who don’t respect authority, life experience or expertise. His students call Josh by his first name, and a lifetime of being empowered, allowed to think that whatever attitude or opinion they have is as valid as those with more experience of the world, has made them hyper-sensitive, emboldened and dispectful.
That’s an interesting message to slip into the middle of a lightweight ethnic family comedy about kids, grandkids and great grandkids who haven’t grown up, and a doting grandmother about to leave this world.
There are laughs and moments of warmth. And there are annoyingly familiar confrontations that have a grounding in legitimate cultural grievances, but which a lot of funny shouting cannot resolve, during or “After Class.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, sexual conversations, off-camera drug use
Cast: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Fran Drescher, Lynn Cohen, Silvia Morigi, Richard Schiff.
Credits: Written and directed by Daniel Schechter. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:33