Packing far more emotional weight than your standard buddy comedy, Jeff Grace’s Folk Hero & Funny Guy sets up something akin to The Odd Couple on the road and then proceeds to turn most—or all—of your assumptions on their heads with charm, wit and not a small amount of melancholy. This is far from your average road trip comedy.
The overall premise is simple enough: The film opens with stand-up comedian Paul (Alex Karpovsky of Girls) and folk rocker Jason (Wyatt Russell of Everybody Wants Some!!) on separate stages, recounting the trip, with one referring to it as a “breakthrough” and the other having a slightly…less enthusiastic take on the experience.
Jason is about to embark on a solo acoustic tour along the East Coast and decides that his childhood friend Paul should be his opening act. Despite what you might think, hijinks don’t ensue. Well, OK, that’s a lie, there are some hijinks, including arguably the funniest and most awkward threesome ever filmed, but, in general, Folk Hero & Funny Guy doesn’t let the audience off that easily and is several steps above a lightweight road comedy.
Paul is a talented former advertising professional turned struggling stand-up in a serious personal and professional rut. His fiancée recently dumped him, he lives in a hovel and he’s desperately in need of new material. He spends his nights doing 10-minute spots at open mic nights with 10-year-old jokes about Evites and one cringe-inducing routine about Arab cab drivers. He brings the funny on occasion, but his routine is stale and it shows. Both the comedy club owner (Michael Ian Black, in one of the film’s many great cameos) and Jason think Paul should get out of his routine to find new material.
On the other hand, Jason is a fabulously successful folk rock musician with the flowing locks and rugged beard you might expect from someone played by the offspring of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. The split screen title montage pretty much nails the difference between where the two men are in their lives: Paul wakes up on an air mattress in his studio the size of a postage stamp, shaves, dresses with a look of beaten resignation and trudges out to a temp job, while Jason wakes up next to a beautiful woman, has sex and goes back to sleep as she dresses and leaves.
Jason is sort of like an Irish Wolfhound puppy. He’s absurdly charismatic, fearless and lovable, as well as monumentally self-absorbed and irresponsible. It’s not very long on the road together (first night, actually) before Jason’s self-obliviousness re-opens old wounds. At a musician’s open mic night in Tom’s River, NJ, Paul takes an interest in Bryn (Meredith Hagner), a lovely young singer-songwriter, and Jason ends up sleeping with her—as well as inviting her to open for the two of them on tour. Awkward.
From there, the trip takes the trio to smaller cities and towns where Jason and Paul stumble, more or less, through their respective early-mid life crises and Bryn is there to either pick up the pieces or, more often, get hit by their emotional shrapnel. Along the way, it’s revealed that Jason has an ulterior motive for the trip, giving more insight into both Jason the man and Jason the man-child. He is all Id, rarely thinking about how his actions might affect other people—and even then only after he’s been confronted, his mantra being “I fucked up. I’m sorry!” Paul, on the other hand, is oblivious in an entirely different way. He shuffles through life with diminished ability to read social cues, lacking the self-awareness to realize that when he bombs on stage, it’s not “the room,” it’s him.
It’s clear that despite their disparate personalities, Jason and Paul have a deep affection for each other, and Karpovsky and Russell are naturals at portraying their friendship, as well as the emotional baggage that comes with that particular dynamic. Grace’s script is loaded with hysterical throwaway lines and references to the past that help turn these characters into real flesh-and-blood people that we all recognize. While some of the situations are outsized, the film has an authentic and ultimately satisfying real-life feel to it. The chemistry between Karpovsky, Russell and Hagner sells the film and all three leads are immensely talented and natural performers. Hagner and Russell’s live musical performances are high points. The supporting cast is dotted with recognizable faces, including David Cross as a particularly humorless radio host, Melanie Lynskey as [spoiler!] and Heather Morris as a singularly bat-shit crazy personality they meet in a bar on tour. And if going on stage and telling bad jokes on purpose seems easy? You’re nuts.
Director: Jeff Grace
Writer: Jeff Grace
Starring: Alex Karpovsky, Wyatt Russell, Meredith Hagner
Release Date: May 12, 2017
Mark Rabinowitz is a Louisville-based freelance writer, film producer, (very) amateur handicapper and regular contributor to Paste. He is the co-founder of IndieWire.com and makes a mean midnight faux-paella. You can follow him on Twitter.