Jim Sharman’s midnight movie masterpiece The Rocky Horror Picture Show famously opens on a pair of disembodied lips singing “Science Fiction/Double-Feature.” They’re rich, vividly red, luscious and sexual, altogether supernaturally seductive as they croon against a black background; after 44 years of cult worship, the sequence remains indelible. Greener Grass, a new, agonizing black comedy by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, kicks off with a similar image, but the lips are a garish pink and they aren’t singing. Instead, they’re twitching under the strain of a forced smile as the credits roll atop them.
The lips belong to Jill (DeBoer), who has just passed guardianship of her newborn baby to her bestie Lisa (Luebbe); Jill’s the generous type, rich in children and all too happy to share the wealth. It’s the first inexplicable and nauseating mistake she, and every other character in the story for that matter, makes, a clumsy yank on the skein that starts her slow unraveling over the movie’s duration. Turns out that Jill loves her baby quite a lot, and that, despite her husband Nick (Beck Bennett) and their older son Julian (Julian Hilliard), she’s hopelessly alone. Likely Jill doesn’t register her loneliness because she’s hopelessly vapid, too, again not unlike everyone else in the movie: In American suburbs, people keep their friends close and their frenemies closer while engaging in social arms races and cataloguing the petty grievances in their candy-coated lives.
Greener Grass is a comedy of manners where the comedy catches in the throat like fish bones. The only decent person in the movie is actually a dog, who is actually Julian, who magically transforms into a dog (to Jill’s horror and Nick’s delight). Julian’s the nonconformist in their midst, falling short of cultural mores because he’s a complete weirdo who’d rather bang incoherent noise on piano keys at a recital than play “Yankee Doodle” like all of his classmates. (Good for Julian.) The “why” and “how” of his canine metamorphosis is never revealed, but it is perhaps explained by DeBoer and Luebbe’s Upright Citizens Brigade background. Improv is the art of saying “yes, and …” so it fits that Greener Grass is a “yes, and …” movie, 90 minutes of thoroughly bizarre premises no one questions or balks at but instead, dive into with absurdist gusto.
Individual mileage may vary, but that same absurdism might conjure similarities to Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and especially The Phantom of Liberty, two films where wanton strangeness permeates every frame, characters rotate from one segment to the next, and the rich sit on toilets at the dining room table, excusing themselves periodically to visit the bathroom to eat. There’s a kinship to Mickey Rose’s Student Bodies, too, as DeBoer and Luebbe on occasion cut away from Jill’s tragicomic self-destruction to an unseen, heavily breathing figure hanging around the film’s edges, muttering and sputtering with creepy brio. Buñuel’s surrealism mingles with Rose’s genre parody, floating above the episodic plotting like discomfiting atmosphere. The running time should be counted in squirms instead of minutes.
Greener Grass packs that bundled, unsettling energy into a sitcom aesthetic (though frequently shot at a distance that facilitates the film’s chilling and eccentric air). It’s the most awkward family TV show you’ve ever seen, offset by a never-ending barrage of gags squeezed off with such a consistent rate of fire that keeping up is impossible. But there’s a silver lining: Each is hilarious, whether the running joke about Nick’s obsession with drinking pool water, a low-key dinner scene where everybody eats food off the floor of a fancypants French restaurant, throwaway lines about Pangea’s deformation, or, of course, poor Julian’s Kafkaesque situation. Maybe DeBoer and Luebbe mean to smear dogs as the ultimate conformists in a movie built to pour contempt on conformity. Then again, if any of us had folks like Jill and Nick, we might also wish to spontaneously become dogs, too. Greener Grass suggests that life in the suburbs is a monotonous uphill battle to stay ahead of the Joneses, and that being a dog might be a better deal. Otherwise, you’d best hold that chagrined smile.
Directors: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe
Writers: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe
Starring: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Julian Hilliard, Dot-Marie Jones, Janicza Bravo, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.