At any given moment in Mr. Roosevelt, Noël Wells is a frazzled powder keg, fuse lit and ready to blow. The question is what her imminent detonation will look like. She might go full-on berserk and indiscriminately chew out anyone fool enough to register on her scorn radar. She might instead fall under the spell of a crying fit, weeping with abandon in public spaces, immune to the stares and chagrin of strangers and acquaintances alike. She isn’t prickly, just a tad unstable, but that’s okay. If your ex called you in the middle of awkward sex with a stranger to inform you that your cat died, you probably wouldn’t wind up in a good headspace, either.
There’s more to Wells’ journey than that, of course. Her character, struggling comedienne Emily, is summoned back to Austin by her former beau, Eric (Nick Thune), to pay her last respects to the kitty of the title, a fluffy orange tabby we see only in flashbacks and in photos. Adding insult to injury, Eric invites Emily to stay at the house they once cohabitated, and which he now shares with his new girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower). Celeste is cool, stylish and has her life on track. Emily, by contrast, is best known for a viral video where she bathes in a tub full of spaghetti. It’s one thing to break up with a person. It’s another to see how the life you once made with them has been completely overridden by another person. The crusty old living room carpet is gone; the house is an airy, bright replication of an HGTV home makeover. Celeste even appropriates Emily’s bereavement over the loss of the cat, which is the worst snub of them all.
Mr. Roosevelt is the sort of female-led project we used to describe as “brave,” back when we didn’t have proper language for appraising women’s contributions to popular culture. Mr. Roosevelt isn’t a brave film. Instead, let’s call it a sincere film. Mr. Roosevelt means everything that Wells says, which helps elide that so little of what she says is unheard of. The difference between media like Girls and Mr. Roosevelt is Wells herself. Filtering a standard array of Millennial anxieties through her screenplay and her direction, Wells gets to make proclamations about who she is as an actress, a creative voice and a human being. The joy of the film lies in the act of introduction.
Mostly, Wells structures Mr. Roosevelt via incident. Emily meanders around Austin and gamely tries to warm up to Celeste while remaining platonic with Eric, all of which goes about as smoothly as anyone can reasonably expect. Celeste is a vacuous bore. To paraphrase Emily, she’s a living, breathing Pinterest board, someone who painstakingly curates their life to maximize the number of likes they get on their Instagram posts. It’s not that Celeste is a bad person. She’s just a hollow one. (If we’re being kind she’s just a normal, everyday person caught up in the hollow pursuits of her generation.) Watching Emily navigate first L.A., where she is subjected to a flood of creepy male come-ons in a shockingly small window of time, and then Austin, we get the sense of being outsiders looking in. The worlds Emily observes are worlds she feels that she can’t participate in.
It’s a painful sensation, seeing Wells keep herself at arm’s length in her own film. But Mr. Roosevelt effervesces more than it stings, especially when Emily keeps company with her social savior, Jen (Daniella Pineda), a waitress who kicks ass at drumming in a punk rock band in her spare time and who teaches Emily to loosen up. Their relationship freshens up a tired old trope of comedies, dramedies and basically any humor-adjacent movie about aimless twenty- or thirtysomethings trying to figure their lives out. Usually it’s a love interest who spurs that kind of change in a film’s protagonist. Here, that character is literally just a friend. Jen’s no-nonsense conviviality is infectious, not only to Emily but to us: She’s all about taking pleasure in the small things in life, like swimming topless in public without shame or learning to love your own work.
We eventually get to see that spaghetti tub video, and, as can be said of most things Wells does, it’s actually hilarious. Like Wells, Emily’s style of performance is self-assured. Even when she’s dousing herself with pasta sauce, you get the impression that neither character nor actress feels even the least bit self-conscious. That Emily is dogged by self-consciousness on the inside could be a tell: Maybe Mr. Roosevelt is just Wells’ way of exorcising an inner embarrassment kept hidden from us in TV shows like Master of None and movies like The Incredible Jessica James. If yes, then consider Mr. Roosevelt a success. If not, and if we’re just being presumptuous, consider it a success anyways. The film’s abundance of tenderness and lack of cringe laughs, save for that opening sex scene, lets it stand out from its feel-bad comedy peers.
You will no doubt see better demonstrations of craft in other indie comedies this year, but they might not be quite as confident with themselves as this. It takes a certain special something to find levity in dead cats and Spaghetti-Os.
Director: Noël Wells
Writer: Noël Wells
Starring: Noël Wells, Nick Thune, Britt Lower, Daniella Pineda
Release Date: November 17, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.