The French Italian Is Almost Too Delightfully New Yorky for Its Own Good

Movies Reviews Rachel Wolther
The French Italian Is Almost Too Delightfully New Yorky for Its Own Good

Something about the Tribeca Film Festival that has long set it apart from that other, tonier, more selective film festival held annually in Manhattan is that its larger, more quality-variable selection of films allows for movies that can get pinpoint-specific about New York City itself. Yes, the New York Film Festival will show classy NYC-set movies like Frances Ha or Motherless Brooklyn, but at Tribeca you can find a comedy premised on the hyperspecific (and, if not New York-exclusive, certainly New York-familiar) experience of being a couple mutually fixating on the inexplicable overheard behaviors of another, neighboring couple in your thin-walled apartment building. The French Italian, a small-scale comedy from writer/director Rachel Wolther, doesn’t just understand that this behavior occurs, but records the particular way that one pair of people will speculate, alternating rage and genuine curiosity, about the toxicity of annoying strangers’ relationship dynamics.

The couple, in this case, is made up of Doug (Aristotle Athari) and Valerie (Catherine Cohen), as committed to each other as they’re unmoored from their professional lives. Doug has switched to working from home, while Valerie has been recently unemployed, putting them – like so many others in a post-2020 world – in their apartment for more hours than ever. They explain all of this at a house party for some friends, revealing that they’ve actually had to give up their rent-stabilized Upper West Side unit because the couple downstairs (Jon Rudnitsky and Chloe Cherry) won’t stop having screaming fights or noisy karaoke sessions at all hours of the day and night – sometimes directly adjacent to each other. (The particular timing of one rendition of “La Bamba” supplies one of the film’s biggest laughs.) Doug and Valerie never quite worked up the nerve to address the situation, and instead have temporarily decamped for free-but-inconvenient family digs in the suburbs.

This doesn’t sit right with them, so when friends jokingly suggest an obtuse revenge plot, Doug and Valerie get into it. Their new friend-of-a-friend Wendy (Ruby McCollister) finds Mary, the woman and seeming catalyst for the couple’s noisiness, on social media, and goads them into reaching out to her to offer her a phony audition. But rather than use this as an opportunity for quick revenge or even confrontation, Doug, Valerie and Wendy (why is everyone in this movie named like an early Gen-Xer, rather than mid-period millennials?) perpetuate their stage-production ruse. All the while, nobody seems to notice that the supposedly wronged party has constructed a scheme so elaborately strange that it could pass for a later-season Seinfeld plotline in its absurdity and petty, ego-driven New Yorkiness.

This sitcom resemblance turns into both a blessing and a curse. Wolther’s comedy has real teeth; she has no compunction about making her characters less likable as they go along. But she may have miscalculated her starting place; some of the farcical complications over-rely on a sense of POV-shifting surprise that the movie telegraphs early, when it would be easy enough to get us on Doug and Valerie’s side. (What city resident hasn’t fumed over neighbor noise?) That we-get-it problem, less prevalent in a 22-minute comedy than a 90-minute one, emerges again during some long scenes where Doug and Valerie fake their way through the process of making theater. Extended jokes about badly directed, badly acted improv may actually be harder to direct or act than improv itself.

Not that Athari and especially Cohen don’t try their best, flinging themselves into thirtyish delusion without bumbling into cringe-comedy overacting. There’s a neat symmetry in the fact that both Athari and his barely-seen nemesis Rudnitsky are single-season SNL players, and perfect sense in Cohen’s near-rhyming role in the horrifically self-conscious NYC rom-com Dating and New York
– little and very possibly coincidental extratextual details that make The French Italian ring all the more true as a labor of artists aware of art’s ridiculous pitfalls.

So The French Italian is frequently clever and observant, but is it consistently funny? Like laugh-out-loud, forget-the-contrivances, hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner funny? Sadly, no. It’s a little too cluttered with dead-end oddities, like the party-story structure that begins the movie with too many layers of flashbacks, the rehearsal scenes that drag on, and the predictable cringe comedy that dominates more of the proceedings as they go on. It’s almost, dare say, too New York for its own good. In the spirit of Doug and Valerie, however, we probably shouldn’t admit that such a thing is even possible.

Director: Rachel Wolther
Writer: Rachel Wolther
Starring: Catherine Cohen, Aristotle Athari, Ruby McCollister, Chloe Cherry, Jon Rudnitsky, Ikechukwu Ufomadu
Release Date: June 6, 2024 (Tribeca Festival)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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