There’s a fine line between the morbidly funny and the macabre. For every “black comedy” that walks the line well—Fargo, Heathers and Harold and Maude—there are dozens of films like Matthew Kowalchuk’s Lawrence & Holloman—a 2013 Canadian film finally getting U.S. disribution—that are unable to elicit much humor from a contrived screenplay and a long laundry list of overtly “dark” subjects and situations, such as a suicide attempt, amputation and mental illness.
The film opens on a buzzing alarm and a depressed-looking Holloman (Daniel Arnold) staring at the clock. (Can we call a moratorium already on this clichéd opening shot?) He leads a lonely life at home, and at work, inside a department store’s credit collection office, he’s alienated from his colleagues as they all toil away individually at their phones. The universe likes to play with Holloman in little ways, making his existence all the more miserable, because even when he tries to do something positive, his karma gets a smackdown. For instance, someone accidentally moves a charity collection basket as he’s about to throw in some change, causing all his coins to spill across the floor. Cue comical trumpet sound. It’s no surprise that Holloman carries a gun in his briefcase, presumably to kill himself at the right time.
As the fates would have it, he drops the gun and his papers in an elevator, and during this scramble to collect the firearm, Lawrence (Ben Cotton) enters both the elevator and Holloman’s life. Lawrence doesn’t notice anything amiss because he’s a self-absorbed, happy-go-lucky salesman with a penchant for dropping malapropisms willy-nilly. He’s the yang to Holloman’s yin, the Vladimir to his Estragon, who offers such homespun advice as “When things are down, always look up!” to his cynical friend—an over-the-top character, obviously, but not in any particularly endearing or entertaining way. Kowalchuck, who co-wrote the script with Arnold, belabors Lawrence’s charmed existence to contrast Holloman’s cursed life. Watching Lawrence skip down the street and dance with sidewalk vendors on his way home is almost too much to stomach.
The two strike up a curious “friendship.” Lawrence offers to take the socially awkward Holloman under his wing, and Holloman uses the time to understand how an intellectually inferior man can get so lucky. As the frenemy “comedy” unfolds, the pair’s fortunes switch, precipitated by the arrival of a mysterious, mustachioed man. The stranger is bent on destroying Lawrence’s sales career, his relationship with his fiancée, and ultimately, his life. It’s not a secret—at least to the audience—whom the perpetrator is, but Lawrence is so dense, and his outlook so sunny, that he takes every calamity that befalls him in stride. While their luck shifts, the power balance between the two men never does; even when (spoiler alert!) he loses a leg, Lawrence somehow still wins at life, infuriating Holloman to no end.
Lawrence & Holloman strives for a mixture of the classic odd-coupling Planes, Trains and Automobiles (sadly without as much heart or dynamic performances exemplified by John Candy and Steve Martin) and Waiting for Godot. The existential component derives from the script’s source material—a two-hander stage play by Morris Panych—with Arnold and Kowalchuk developing and embellishing grisly scenes that occur offstage in the play for the film version. And, aside from a few daydream/fantasy sequences, Lawrence & Holloman still retains an air of theatricality, which tonally doesn’t translate well to the screen. The questions the film posits about fate and destiny and whether they can be changed by disposition are intriguing, but the one-note nature of the leading characters distracts from any subtler, and therefore more rewarding, character development. Mostly played at full tilt, Lawrence’s unbridled optimism comes off as more cloying than comical, and Holloman’s transformation from suicidal collection agent to sadist is unconvincing.
While there are supporting characters in the film, they’re given inconsequential story lines. Katharine Isabelle’s Zooey serves as Holloman’s unrequited object of desire, and Amy Matysio is Lawrence’s fiancée, Jill. We learn that she and Zooey had a brief dalliance in high school, but other than that tidbit, we know nothing about Jill or why she’s even attracted to Lawrence. At one point the film leads the audience to believe that Holloman may actually find a friend in Zooey, but that thread is dropped as swiftly as its brought up. Among the foursome, Isabelle gives the most relatable, tempered performance—but the comparison probably isn’t fair, because the film has no interest in creating characters over caricatures. Just as it seems to have no interest in the “comedy” part of being a black comedy.
Director: Matthew Kowalchuk
Writer: Daniel Arnold, Matthew Kowalchuk (screenplay); Morris Panych (stage play)
Starring: Daniel Arnold, Ben Cotton, Katharine Isabelle
Release Date: August 7, 2015 (Los Angeles); August 11, 2015 (VOD)
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.