One of the key ingredients for a successful film is a good title. And one thing that makes for a good title is one that is perfectly descriptive of the movie within.
Jeff Grace's witty, diverting feature debut Folk Hero & Funny Guy has such a title, which is a major selling point. Much like, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - to choose a random example - you don't need to wonder what, or in this case who, you will encounter when you see this title in a film festival catalog or a newspaper listing. Luckily, however, Folk Hero & Funny Guy has a lot more going for it than the convenient thematic shorthand of its title.
The "folk hero" is Jason (Wyatt Russell), a popular and successful folk rock musician who enjoys the touring rock star life, with all its attendant perks, not the least of which include hordes of adoring female fans, and being able to have a girl in every port, as it were. The “funny guy” is Paul (Alex Karpovsky) a struggling stand-up comic who’s stuck in a rut of lackluster audience response and dead-end temp advertising copywriter jobs. A split screen intro to both characters succinctly sketches their daily existences: Paul drags himself out of bed to face another dreary day at the office, while Jason languidly lounges in a hotel room, basking in the afterglow of the latest groupie he bedded the previous night.
Friends since childhood, Jason and Paul reconnect after one of Paul’s typical gigs where the crowd reacts in stony silence to his outdated jokes. The club manager (Michael Ian Black) suggests he take some time off to “recharge,” presumably to generate fresher material. Paul’s life at this time is at an especially low ebb, having just broken off an engagement, and living in the bitter wake of that failed relationship.
Jason offers Paul a way to escape his rut: to accompany him on tour as Jason’s opening act on a tour of intimate club venues he’s about to embark on. Despite his reluctance, and his trepidation and uncertainty about how the unusual combo of standup comedy and earnest folk songs will work, Paul agrees, mostly because he has no better options at this point.
As they go on tour, the long-standing dynamic between the two friends quickly reemerges: while Paul hesitates and dithers over every choice he’s confronted with, Jason heedlessly, and recklessly, takes the bull by the horns, letting the chips fall where they may, and to Paul’s great chagrin and annoyance, often acting before fully thinking things through.
This pattern of behavior is most pertinently demonstrated with the arrival of Bryn (Meredith Hagner), another musician they meet who’s performing on the same bill at a New Jersey club. Paul takes to her right away, and she seems like a potential way for him to rebound from his recent romantic problems. However, while Paul takes the slowest of baby steps in getting closer to her, Jason swoops in and beds Bryn, visiting upon Paul the ultimate act of cockblocking sabotage.
Needless to say, this drives an immediate wedge between the two men, and puts a strain on the rest of the road trip, especially when Jason invites Bryn to come along with them on tour, creating an awkward threesome entourage. The conflicts become even worse when it is revealed that Jason has an ulterior motive for this trip, and that it isn’t just an altruistic act to help Paul get his “mojo back,” to use Jason’s terminology.
Folk Hero & Funny Guy takes the form of the familiar cinematic template of the buddy road trip movie, and Alex Karpovsky’s Paul seems, at least on the surface level, to be yet another variation on the sardonic personages that have been his stock in trade for a number of years now. However – to use musical terms – while the notes may feel familiar, the overall composition boasts a bracing freshness and exuberant execution. Nancy Schreiber’s warm, evocative cinematography recalls studio comedies of the 1970’s, especially those by Robert Altman or Hal Ashby (Grace’s stated major influence).
But it’s really the great performances (both in the acting and the music) that make this movie most memorable. Karpovsky and Russell are supremely credible as old friends who have been around each other long enough to know how each other tick, and the script is quite astute in showing the ways that this can be both nurturing and cruel.
Meredith Hagner also shines in her role, which is much more than the typical supporting female love interest. More than simply a muse or a site for male competition, she shows agency and a control over her own destiny, a characterization which, in both writing and performance, is far more progressive and empowering than one usually sees in films of this ilk. Another aspect that lifts this film well above others of this sort is its unusually clear-eyed examination of the hard choice involved in whether to doggedly pursue one’s dreams or whether to give them up, or at least modify them into more realistic goals.
In all of the great qualities I’ve mentioned above, as well as in Jeff Grace’s evident, and deeply felt, familiarity with the milieus of comedy and music he depicts in his work, Folk Hero & Funny Guy marks the arrival of a remarkable filmmaking talent whose progress will be well worth watching.
[Full disclosure: Ryland Aldrich, who is Festivals Editor for ScreenAnarchy, served as a producer on the film. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this review.]
Review originally published during the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2016. The film opens in select U.S. theaters and various Video On Demand platoforms on Friday, May 12.