Monday, July 20, 2009

On DVD: "Bart Got a Room"

Brian Hecker’s Bart Got a Room is a slight (it clocks in at a mere 72 minutes without closing credits), lightweight, somewhat insubstantial film, treading familiar ground without much in the way of a new spin. But it’s also an infectiously charming little movie, blessed with a unique style and a wry comic sensibility. From its opening sequence, of a badly off-tempo high school jazz band performing for a mostly-empty audience of beachside oldsters, the picture adopts a cockeyed perspective and goofy likability; you may know where it’s going, but you stick with it for its affable style.

Newcomer Steven J. Kaplan stars, but he plays Danny Stein, not the title character—Bart, it seems, is the biggest loser in Danny’s high school, so as prom madness sweeps his senior class, the pressures of getting dates, limos, and hotel rooms are best summed up when Danny is informed that, yes, “Bart got a room.” It’s a bit of information that not only springs our hero to action, but also his recently separated parents (well-played by William H. Macy and Cheryl Hines). Danny’s been asked to the prom by Camille (Alia Shawkat), his best friend since childhood, but he’s aiming “higher”—he has eyes for Alice (Ashley Benson), the knockout blonde cheerleader he drives home every day after school. When she shoots him down, he finds himself desperately searching for a date, blind to the fact that, yes, he’s got a very good thing right in front of him.

So this is a story that we’ve heard before (it was already stale when moviegoers of my generation first saw it in Some Kind of Wonderful). But Bart Got a Room transcends its formulaic roots, primarily thanks to Hecker’s specific comic approach; he’s got a nice eye for composition and a distinctively visual sense of humor. He enjoys the occasional piece of askew framing, and is always throwing little jokes into the background or off to the side. He’s got a nice way with dialogue as well—the compressed running time doesn’t cause the exclusion of throwaway color gags (“Mom, I just saw a lizard in the house.” “It’s fine, they eat ants, it’s fine”). And he also finds just the right tone—it’s frank and honest about sex, but seldom engages in the kind of perverse raunchiness that we’ve come to expect from prom-night comedy.

Macy, driving a rusted-out Mercedes and sporting an unfortunate hairdo, is delightfully funny; the newly-single father with a misunderstanding of information boundaries is a comic well that’s been mined before, but he still manages to get some mileage out of it (primarily by keeping the would-be caricature grounded and realistic, and wearing his love for the kid on his sleeve). Hines brings to her role much of the same good-natured pragmatism that makes her so much fun to watch on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Kaplan makes for an engaging lead, exhibiting a fine sense of comic timing, though Shawkat is somewhat underused (she rarely gets opportunities for the dry line readings that made her work as Maeby on Arrested Development so memorable).

Not every bit works; there’s an unfortunate scene at the home of an Asian girl Danny is wooing (the scene itself isn’t really that offensive, but the music cues sure are), and for all of the effort Macy and Kaplan put into the “how thick are the walls” scene, you can still see the punchline a mile off. But for what it is (and for how broad and/or vulgar it could have been), Bart Got a Room is an amiable, enjoyable comedy.

Airy, nimble, and not terribly consequential, Bart Got a Room isn’t a terribly memorable comedy, but it has its charms. There’s not an abundance of belly laughs, but I found myself smiling and chuckling from beginning to end, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of so-called “indie comedies.”

"Bart Got a Room" hits DVD on Tuesday, June 28th.

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