Everyone Is Pathetic: The Anti-Cringe Comedy of Hasta La Vista

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In November one of New York comedy’s finest emerging creative teams released its first film, Hasta La Vista, which you should watch for a number of reasons: firstly because it’s good, secondly because it’s short, thirdly through sixthly because it’s funny, strange, deeply sad, and full of visual surprises. The story is simple—a good man does something bad, then immediately proceeds to make it worse. This is familiar terrain, sure, but freshly reimagined by Josh Rabinowitz’s script and the nimble co-direction of Matt Kazman and Matt Porter. We’ve watched plenty of neurotic Jewish funnymen dig their own graves; rarely have we seen them do it with this level of unrelenting tragic whimsy.

Hasta stars Rabinowitz as Andy, a charmingly awkward New Yorker who manages to insult another charmingly awkward New Yorker while flirting with her at a party. Relatable! The insult in question involves a hippo-themed song Andy insists is a nursery rhyme: his would-be partner, played with affable disquiet by Jackie Zebrowski, takes the lyrics as a jab at her weight. Andy is naturally unable to source his tune, gets ejected from the party, and spends (most of) the rest of the film desperately trying to redeem himself. It’s not so much a descent into madness as a gradual unveiling of madness—an awakening of the Seinfeldian psychopathy that exist even in the Mulaneyest among us. But what’s especially exciting here is how deftly Hasta and its creators dole out the awkwardness without descending into cringe. Andy should be hard to watch: he’s not. It works because Rabinowitz is an eminently likable actor, yes, but also due to the alchemic alignment of sensibilities guiding the film. Kazman and Porter are both skilled writer-director-editors with impressive oeuvres and distinctive styles; in Hasta the whole is more than the sum of its parts. What they ultimately offer us is a new aesthetic of awkwardness, one unadulterated by clichéd self-pity or remorse—a pure, platonic, Righteous Awkwardness we are happy to watch and compelled to embrace.

This is no coincidence. Like Rabinowitz, whose screenplay was inspired by his stand-up, Kazman and Porter have spent years dealing with awkward characters in awkward worlds. Kazman’s short film Flagpole navigates the tense minefield of adolescence with solemn acuity. So does his forthcoming Killer, a brutal comedy about a boy whose mother falls dead after the first time he masturbates—leading him to conclude he has a terrible superpower. “I like dialogue that feels real and awkward,” Kazman told me, “and making work that’s visually dry and tonal… I lean toward the comedy that comes from silence when you don’t know what to say.” He makes himself at home in long painful moments, lingering on troubled faces with a slow-moving camera and spare dialogue: the filmic equivalent, perhaps, of Annie Baker. This meshes well with his co-director’s peculiar brand of absurdism. Porter, best known as half of the sketch duo Good Cop Great Cop, tends to work within more naturalistic (if occasionally stylized) constraints. He drops ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances, generating powerful frisson when they respond, well, ordinarily. Both he and Kazman are interested in following absurd conceits to their logical conclusions: in their world, awkwardness is born from the discovery that logic often isn’t so logical after all.

The cold truth at play in Hasta, for instance, is that a good person can do good things that have bad consequences. “There’s a lot out there about nice people who have rude things done to them,” said Rabinowitz. “What we’re interested in is the idea that it’s not just all these people around you that are assholes—you’re the asshole.” His script tempers Andy’s assholery with satisfying lightness, which Kazman and Porter in turn complicate with weighty silences, lengthy reaction shots, and surprising visual flourishes. There’s plenty of darkness here, and the film certainly ends on a sour note. But Hasta strikes a delicate balance between gravity and whimsy—there is as much sincerity in Andy’s goofy flirtation as there is in the contemptuous voicemail he leaves from a diner, a Hungry Hungry Hippos board on the table. He tries so earnestly to prove he’s a good dude that he ultimately proves he’s a bad dude too.

Bizarrely, Rabinowitz and Porter have been grappling with this tension since they were childhood neighbors and 5th-grade classmates in Rye, New York. Rabinowitz is a short man now and he was a short boy then, which naturally served as an object of some amusement among his peers. One peer in particular, a young Matthew Porter, garnered especially raucous laughter when he called Rabinowitz “shorty.” Well, one day enough was enough and Josh challenged Matt to a fight. “I was clearly grandstanding,” he recalled. “Honestly I forgot about it until lunch, when someone told me Matt told a teacher. I went to the bathroom and started crying hysterically. I was trying to figure out what I would say, rehearsing in the mirror—I’m a good boy, I would never do this! I’m so nice, he called me short!” When the two reunited in 2013—as actors on the set of a webseries written and directed by Kazman, Porter’s friend from NYU—Porter had no recollection of the Shorty Incident. Rabinowitz didn’t bring it up until their friendship was sealed; he still maintains it was a formative, traumatic experience of grade-school bullying. Looking back now, Porter suspects he was simply trying to fit in. “I felt like this is what we do,” he said. “We make fun of Josh. So that’s what I did, because I was such a people please-y little kid, aggressively trying to be loved by the world.”

Try to be loved by everyone, though, and you may end up loved by no one. “Some people are gonna hate you no matter what,” said Porter. “You can try to be a people-pleaser or you can just be a specific person in the world. What gets Andy in trouble is thinking he needs to posture, to be what other people want, but he’s not that. I think we’re all three of us interested in characters who are not quite in touch with their true selves—that’s what true awkwardness is, I think, the struggle to hear yourself through the white noise of being alive.”

Rabinowitz put it more bluntly. “Everyone is pathetic,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being lame—maybe I’m lame—but I think the crux of it is the fight to be better. Once you decide, ‘I’m awkward and that’s awesome,’ you’re no longer awkward, you’re arrogant.” Perhaps this is what rings so novel in Hasta’s conceptualization of awkwardness. There’s no self-insistence, no gratingly transparent need to convince the viewer that it is what it says it is. We trust Andy simply because he seems deserving of our trust; we watch simply for the pleasure in watching. To borrow a phrase from Porter, the film and its creators are secure in their insecurities: honest, off-kilter, and happy to be so.

Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.

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