Movies are constantly finding new ways to grab our attention, but you still can’t do much better than a fascinating protagonist. Meet Mat (Josh Lucas), one of the most memorably unsympathetic characters in recent memory. Aimless and inscrutable in the extreme, he only has a few coherent desires: food, sex, scotch, and menthol cigarettes. Asked what he does for a living, Mat says he works in “freelance web design,” but he phrases it like a question. When he accidentally smashes a bottle on his brother’s kitchen floor, he just leaves it there, eventually slicing open his foot, bleeding all over the building, and demanding band-aids from the neighbours. Mat is not here to be loved. He’s here to be difficult.
Less alienated, but no less intriguing, Mat’s brother Alan (a terrific Stephen Plunkett) is about to leave for a Canadian vacation with his girlfriend Farrah (Frances Ha’s Mickey Sumner). The stated reason for this trip is hiking, but Alan has also agreed to propose. Following a night of excess (relayed as a bravura 23-minute party sequence), Alan and Farrah depart for their trip, but Mat surreptitiously remains in their apartment. While this begins as a more hedonistic variation on Home Alone, Mat soon invites over his girlfriend and her pre-teen son (who’s currently reading The Godfather). When Alan and Farrah’s vacation goes sour, a depressed Alan unexpectedly returns home, and gradually comes unhinged with the help of his deadbeat brother. They slowly turn into a kind of deranged dysfunctional couple, one that drinks too much and occasionally pees in the kitchen sink.
Even while hinting at the sensibilities of Robert Altman—which may explain the endorsement of Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green—first-time writer-director John Magary delivers a comic sensibility that is completely his own. Whether Mat’s throwing a heartfelt letter out the window (before reading it) or joining his brother in stabbing a locked bathroom door to retrieve those elusive band-aids, Magary manages to enrich The Mend’s humour with hints of his characters’ rich inner lives. He also uses score, classical music, and a diverse selection of songs to create an enigmatic mood that causes most of the film’s humour to catch us completely off guard.
There are too many memorable moments to list here, but watch for the single worst TV salesman in movie history and an inspired voicemail sequence that ranks among the best of its kind. Of course, humour and style only get a film so far. Where The Mend really distinguishes itself is in the specificity of its characters and Magary’s perceptive take on uncommitted middle-aged men. As Mat and Alan adjust to lives free of responsibility, The Mend evolves into a dark variation on Step Brothers. Without the stabilizing influence of girlfriends, wives, or kids, these men malfunction like a pair of obsolete robots, seemingly ready to explode. Watching them get there is a rare cinematic treat.
The Mend opens today at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema. It is also available on VOD.